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Bug vs. bug: insects duke it out.

With sustainability becoming the mantra of American viticulture, broad-spectrum pesticides have fallen out of favor in many vineyards. No one wants their kids' drinking water seasoned with diazinon, and bad bugs tend to rebound and flourish when good bugs are killed off. Rather than killing them all and letting God sort them out, today's vineyard managers are helping the good bugs do the dirty work for them.

For every bad bug--mites, sharpshooters, leafhoppers or mealybugs--there's another bug that can be used successfully to control the pest population. Ladybugs, lacewings, predatory mites, wasps and minute pirate bugs are among the good bugs available from supplier insectaries in California. They can be purchased in various stages of development, from egg to larva to adult, and the same suppliers usually offer food and cover crop mixtures that vineyard managers can use to recruit and feed armies of good bugs to assure that they're around when the bad bugs make their seasonal appearance.

Redwood Valley's Lolonis Winery has long championed the use of beneficial insects to counter vine pests, and even adopted the ladybug as something of a mascot. "My uncle Nick graduated UC Davis in 1956, and was able to convince my grandfather to change our regimen of using pesticides," Phillip Lolonis says. Before World War II, his family had farmed organically, just like everyone else. "The only thing we used was sulfur. Then in the '40s and '50s everyone was pushing pesticides. Now we're going back," he says.

Now Lolonis' vineyards have a stable population of good bugs, including ladybugs and praying mantises, that survive the winter in cover crops of beans and clover that are planted in the fall. When crews disc in the spring, the good bugs move up into the vine canopy to dine on early leafhoppers that eat leaves and interfere with photosynthesis.

Every year, Lolonis invites guests to a winery brunch and ladybug release party that has steadily grown in popularity and proven to be a great promotional event. Lolonis says the annual release is now more symbolic than necessary, but great for reinforcing the winery's commitment to organic viticulture. The winery's labels have long featured a red, spotted ladybug, and the symbol is now a registered trademark.

For Lolonis, ladybugs don't just eat mites, they also attract customers. Grapes that the winery used to sell on the bulk market are blended and sold as Lady Bug Red, now the winery's best-selling wine. "In a way, that ladybug saved our ass!" Lolonis says.

Sustainable agriculture guru Amigo Cantisano of Organic Ag Advisors helps grapegrowers and other farmers transition from using pesticides and herbicides to more sustainable practices. "Once you establish a biologically stable system with cover crops and attractive plants that attract beneficial insects and don't kill them, I rarely apply (live insects) after a couple of years," says Cantisano, who has developed a few crop mixtures of his own to provide affordable housing for bugs that eat leafhoppers, mites and mealybugs.

His prescriptions are usually tailored to the specific farm. "You have to assess the need for intervention based on historic problems," Cantisano advises.

Wild Horse Vineyards and Winery in Paso Robles uses beneficial insects to fight Pacific and two-spotted mites and leafhoppers. Director of winery operations and viticulture Scott Welcher uses a variety of techniques to build good bug populations, from distributing lacewing eggs and predatory mites in the vineyard to planting attractive cover crops.

Wild Horse has even used remote control airplanes to distribute "paratrooper" lacewing eggs over large expanses of vineyard. "The plane had large wings to go slow, with a carrier for eggs. We'd mix (lacewing eggs) with fine cornmeal, put them in the bomb chute, and it would open and close to bomb the vineyard with eggs."

Commercial insectaries and other organic agriculture suppliers have played an important role in providing the bugs and other tools wineries need to move away from toxic pesticides. Maybe the most significant of them is Rincon-Vitova Insectaries (RVI), of Ventura, Calif., which Cantisano describes as "the granddaddy of insectaries." Others include Beneficial Insectary in Oak Run, Calif., and Biotactics in Riverside.

"We're the oldest on the planet, as near as we can figure," says Ron Whitehurst, marketing manager for Rincon-Vitova, which was formed when the independent Rincon and Vitova insectaries dating back to 1959 and 1960 merged in 1971. Today, RVI has approximately 40 employees, and sells insects, eggs, seeds for habitat plants, books, applicators and just about anything else a farmer needs to fend off a plague of bad bugs.

Rincon-Vitova raises its own lacewings and some ladybugs in shipping containers on site, but sees itself as more than just a supplier of beneficial insects. "We promote biological control, and to do that it needs to be in context. You need the support from the whole environment," Whitehurst explains.

"Organic farmers appreciate what we do, but they don't buy a lot of our product, because they foster the beneficial insects by the way that they farm," Whitehurst says. "It's usually transitional farmers that are in the market for insects."

Phil Radspinner, vice president of Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, another insect supplier, also encourages farmers to take a holistic approach. His company developed a low-growing cover crop for beneficials that stays under 18 inches. "A lot of times in vineyards, the growers don't want really tall stuff growing, because that can encourage lower temperatures in spring," Radspinner says. A tall crop that decreases soil heat absorbtion and radiation can cost a degree or two of valuable heat when frost is a threat.

Purchasing adult beneficial insects and releasing them in large numbers to fight a serious outbreak of pests is an expensive proposition, says RVI's Whitehurst. "To use them economically means using them in an anticipatory or proactive way, so that if you know you've got leafhoppers or mealybugs that show up mid-season, as soon as you see aphids on the cover crop, you release some lacewing and get a new generation of lacewings every month. By mid-June, you've got three to four generations, each increasing a couple of hundredfold, and then you've got predators that have been growing hand-in-hand with the prey."

Whitehurst says that mites tend to get started in certain vineyard spots every year, "some place that's a little higher or hotter." Seeding those hot spots at the right times lets the predators grow with the prey.

Among other innovations, RVI has developed an applicator for beneficial insect eggs by adapting a Maruyama mist/dust applicator (which looks something like a leafblower) to distribute lacewing eggs along with starchy liquid that helps them stick to leaves. It sells the bio-applicators for around $700.

For larger areas, aerial distribution may be an efficient way to seed vineyards with beneficial insects. "Yamaha has this helicopter," Whitehurst says, "about a $100,000 toy that's remote control-operated, that can put out dry or liquid chemicals, but you could also use it to put out beneficial insects."

One would think that providing fodder for organic bug wars would be a booming business for suppliers promoting sustainable solutions. The truth is that the suppliers train farmers to get along without them.

Peaceful Valley's Radspinner says that sales of predatory mites peaked in the late '80s, and have been relatively flat since. "The purchasing option doesn't seem to be as popular as it once was," he says. "If you can encourage them to come to your vineyards, you're getting a free ride."

"I keep imagining that (supplying beneficial insects) will be a good business," Whitehurst says. "We've been here for 50 years and are still trying to make it. We're more of a company on a mission."

Resources For Beneficial Insects And Supporting Products

Rincon-Vitova Insectary

P.O. Box 1555

Ventura, CA 93002-1555

Phone: (800) 248-2847

Web site: rinconvitova.com

Peaceful Valley Farm Supply

P.O. Box 2209

Grass Valley, CA 95945

Phone: (888) 784-1722

Web site: groworganic.com

Beneficial Insectary

9664 Tanqueray Ct.

Redding, CA 96003

Phone: (800) 477-3715

Web site: insectary.com

T.T.

(San Francisco resident Tim Teichgraeber is the regular wine columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Wave magazine and books the remainder of his schedule as an entertainment lawyer for the likes of Dillinger Four and Har Mar Superstar. Contact him through edit@winesandvines.com.)
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Author:Teichgraeber, Tim
Publication:Wines & Vines
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:1386
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