Investigating Insects

August 11, 2008 - 09:56

Most visitors to eastern Long Island are surprised to see so much agriculture here and how beautiful it is, expecting to see miles of shopping malls and housing developments. While I can’t say it is pastoral in the sense of dairy or corn country, we do enjoy a certain rural quality with extensive undeveloped areas, including farms, fields and forested areas. Land preservation from development is a hot issue here, and voters consistently pass bonds that provide funds to purchase and maintain what we call “open space.”

With our long coastline and wineries, USDA Zone 7 mild climate (the nearby hamlet of Cutchogue is proclaimed the “sunniest place in New York”) and close proximity to a major metropolitan area — to say nothing of nearly three million residents in two adjacent counties — eastern Long Island is a magnet and easy drive for tourists and seekers of quiet vacation homes, restful scenery and our terrific farm stands. This, of course, translates into enviable demand for the produce of our greenhouse, nursery and vegetable growers and partly explains why most of New York State’s ornamental and professional horticulture maintenance industries are located here.

The Value of Entomology

For the staff at Cornell’s Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Riverhead, this means addressing the research, development, education and diagnostic needs for a diverse and year-round intensive agriculture and ornamental horticulture industry. As the staff entomologist since 1987, this requires keeping up with rapid changes in production, including new plants and growing methods, and staying ahead of the technical aspects of economic entomology, such as new pest-control products and methods, numerous species of insects and mites on hundreds of ornamental plants and food crops, new invasive pests and environmental issues associated with pesticide use in a populated area dependent on groundwater. And somewhere in all that I try to find time to educate the public — who is often too accustomed to thinking that all insects are pests worth destroying — to recognize that many of these creatures are not only attractive and interesting in their own right, but also important to the environment and even to our lives. Thanks to my dependable assistant, Lucille Siracusano, and our seasonal employees, we are able to accomplish most of our program’s goals.

Regardless of how ambivalent our citizens may be concerning the value of insects in their lives, the need for an entomologist here is quite clear. In our diagnostic lab, I handle hundreds of samples and phone inquiries from growers of food crops (vegetables, tree fruit and wine grapes), nursery and greenhouse operations, and professional landscape and arboricultural businesses. Sometimes, the problems require a field visit to see the crop or a tree in place.

The pest and plant problems are diverse, and each year there are new creatures never before reported from Long Island. For example, Kuwana pine mealybug, Japanese wax scale, Q biotype sweet potato whitefly and barberry fruit fly are among our relative newcomers; broad mite, western flower thrips, aster leafhoppers and leafminers are among the recent and familiar faces from greenhouse crops. Like other professional entomologists, I sometimes rely on specialists elsewhere in the country to assist with identifying insects and mites. Some entomologists are particularly skilled at identifying spider mites, aphids, flea beetles, bark beetles, whitefly biotypes, scale insects or thrips, so I call on the relevant individuals for help when our growers and landscape professionals have a mysterious pest that requires their expertise or a second opinion. This is one of the best aspects of our extension system: making this kind of specialized help available to our businesses, parks departments, arboreta and others.

Applied Research

Diagnosing and solving insect- and plant-related problems are possibly the most fun parts of the work, but I also enjoy finding new ways of dealing with pest problems. Applied research — that is, testing products, methods or strategies that have outcomes immediately relevant or useful for growers and landscape managers — is an extremely valuable way to learn for me and, I think, for our region’s horticulture industries. I not only gain firsthand experience finding or assessing solutions to pest problems, but the work also produces the objective data that supports important business decisions with potentially major impacts both from the manufacturers’ as well as the users’ perspective. The inspiration for most of these projects comes from knowledge of local problems and from companies seeking data or information on products or ideas.

For example, when the Q biotype whitefly was found here several years ago, the obvious question was, “What works to control it?” This spurred us to investigate and compare both conventional products as well as some unusual materials. We now have a much better idea of how various products should perform on poinsettia, where this insect is found.

Landscape and arboriculture professionals here have been asking for more “natural” solutions to pest problems for residential areas, in part because of client preference and local laws favoring EPA-designated “reduced-risk” pesticides (Floramite, Conserve, TriStar, Shuttle and Pedestal), biopesticides (Azatin/Ornazin/Aza-Direct, E-Rase, DiPel Pro/Javelin, Triact 70) and “minimum-risk” pesticides (Hexacide, GC-Mite, Organocide) over most older landscape products, so these products and others like them have been often included in our tests.

Recent trials have looked at new or existing options for control of western flower thrips, euonymus scale, arborvitae leafminer, boxwood leafminer, cabbage aphids, corn earworm, oriental beetle grubs, western flower thrips, fungus gnats and Southern red mite, among others. Our director’s daylily trial garden provided a good site to rate many varieties for flower damage because of daylily thrips: There are dramatic differences among cultivars. A trial we established several years ago is comparing more than 20 kinds of birches for their pest tolerance and suitability in Long Island landscapes.

We have also been testing various seed treatments to control cabbage maggot, a pest of cole crops; I believe Long Island may have the only chlorpyrifos-resistant cabbage maggot population and needs other ways of managing this pest. Mating disruption is a relatively new technique for controlling some insect pests, especially in fruit orchards, and we have been evaluating it in nurseries for managing oriental beetle grubs that damage roots of ornamental plants. The technique depends on saturating an area with the insect’s unique sex pheromone, leaving males unable to locate a live female source of the lure, resulting in unmated females and — we hope — the end of the problem.

Most recently, community groups and one town have asked us to investigate efficacy of the 4-Poster device for controlling ticks, which have become much too common in certain areas here. After spending many hours in the field sampling and removing ticks, I have a new respect for them and for researchers who work extensively with pests of humans! Of course, the knowledge we entomologists acquire through our work is freely shared among ourselves and our growers, so our industries can benefit from this kind of extension networking.

Spreading the Word

Running a diagnostic lab and conducting research is important, but even more critical for those of us in extension work is getting the word out where the news is used. We do that through newsletters, the Internet, magazine articles, books, and especially public presentations and workshops. The demand for information is high: From January through June this year, I have done more than 25 presentations or workshops to nearly 2,000 attendees.

I try to learn as much as I can from the audience, because there is usually a lot of valuable experience in the room. The information I glean is of value to others for my future presentations. I also derive from their reactions a sense of the practicality (or lack thereof) in my suggestions or recommendations. Growers and landscape professionals are usually quick to dismiss unrealistic ideas, although extension specialists are also expected to be operating somewhere on the sharp cutting edge of technology.

Businesses vary so greatly that one answer may not be good for all, so I try to provide several options to choose from. For example, organic and “green” methods of insect and mite control are hot now, especially for landscape maintenance but increasingly for production as well. We have yet to take full advantage of the Internet, but as younger growers and managers come up, we are doing more and more business by e-mail. Some kinds of communication are improved, but there is still a lot to be said for more individualized or personal attention.

An Invitation

If you haven’t been, I hope you someday get to visit Cornell University in Ithaca and also see our research facility in Riverhead for yourself. Set against the Finger Lakes of Central New York, the university is a beautiful place with tremendous resources, but I feel especially fortunate to work at the field station here, in farm country surrounded by saltwater (yes, the fishing is great too). I love to watch the display gardens, greenhouse plants and field research plots change through the year.

Not only does entomology enjoy a kind of professional synergy with our other areas in solving problems or planning programs, but we enjoy tremendous industry support and involvement through advisory committees, grants to our Friends of Long Island Horticulture research and extension fund, in-kind donations of plants and other materials, and citizens who speak up on our behalf to elected and other government officials. This keeps us going, and I believe we may have something to do with the healthy state of our horticulture as well.

About The Author

Daniel Gilrein is extension entomologist for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Riverhead, N.Y. He can be reached at dog1@cornell.edu.

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