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Greenhouse pests no match for applied research project

Greenhouse pests no match for applied research project

Written On: 27 May, 2016
Category: Greenhouse North Hill Campus Research
Related programs:  Horticultural Production Sustainable Food Systems

It's a bug's life inside Assiniboine Community College's sustainable greenhouse and students are learning just how effective biological pest control can be.

Insect pests are a common concern among growers in greenhouse environments. They wreak havoc, causing damage by feeding directly on plants and indirectly by spreading disease pathogens and viruses. These pests also make food crops less marketable because they cause cosmetic damage that isn't appealing to consumers.

In many cases, growers use pesticides in an effort to minimize insect pest populations. But there is an alternative: biological pest control agents. In other words, good bugs—often referred to as predator insects or parasitoids—keep the bad bugs like thrips, spider mites, aphids, leaf miners, and whiteflies in check.

The 3,300-square-foot sustainable greenhouse at ACC's North Hill Campus serves as hands-on classroom space. Ten months ago, its insect pest population was widespread. Fortunately, Dr. Poonam Singh saw it as learning and research opportunity for students.

Singh moved to Manitoba from British Columbia this past summer, joining the college as a researcher and instructor in the Horticultural Production and Sustainable Food Systems programs. On the west coast, Singh's research focus was primarily in developing sustainable products and processes for horticulture. She researched on the development of biopesticides, biofertilizers and other natural and sustainable products useful for crop production.

Sustainable Food Systems student Stephanie Hinrichs inside ACC’s sustainable greenhouse.She was able to pull from her research knowledge and introduce her methods to students, kicking off an ambitious applied research project to transform the way pests are controlled inside ACC's greenhouse.

"The knowledge about biological pest control agents is out there. It’s ever emerging,” said Singh. “I’m researching about its application under local climatic conditions. I am also researching about the effective usage in solar greenhouses. This is a research tool in an applied sense.’’

Students were introduced to the basics of biological pest control and throughout the year developed their skills and knowledge. They now inspect plants and monitor counts on sticky cards that catch and trap flying pests. With Singh's guidance, they adjust the number of beneficial organisms or 'natural enemies' to keep pest numbers under control.

For Stephanie Hinrichs, a 2016 graduate of the college’s Sustainable Food Systems advanced certificate program, the research project was a challenging, but rewarding experience. “It was great to learn first hand how to identify, monitor, and manage pest and beneficial insect populations,” said Hinrichs.

Hinrichs now works as a research assistant at the Canada-Manitoba Crop Diversification Centre in Carberry, Man.

A beneficial organism like a parasitic wasp will lay its eggs inside the host insect, keeping it alive until the larvae mature and emerge as adults. It's creepy and cool and it's clearly working. When the applied research project kicked off last September, students found as many as 635 thrips during a single monitoring. In their last week of classes this past April, thrips numbers had fallen to 17.

"It's a learning tool [for students] because they get to see the pests at all stages. They also get to see how effective these biological agents can be in controlling pests," said Singh. "Now they're even faster than me in monitoring. They have such a trained eye."

Students presented this research alongside Singh and her colleague Sajjad Rao at an applied research symposium held by Colleges and Institutes Canada in Winnipeg this past March.

No pesticides have been used in the last 10 months to control pest populations inside the greenhouse. Singh is confident they can continue with the biological pest control as part of a larger integrated pest control approach.

“I’m getting into developing my own rearing and breeding system for these natural enemies,” said Singh. “Now I am trying to extend into controlling diseases through biological methods.”

This research project is supported by Growing Forward 2, a five-year federal-provincial-territorial policy framework to advance the agriculture industry.

Instructor and researcher Poonam Singh
Poonam Singh joined the college last summer as an instructor and researcher.