Beneficial Insect Lab Raises Good Bugs to Kill Bad Ones

By Michael Hill

New Jersey’s the only state in the Northeast with one.

“Most people, when they think of insects, they want to kill them right away. But there are good bugs,” said New Jersey Department of Agriculture Bureau Chief Thomas Dorsey.

Dorsey says just five states in the U.S. have a beneficial insect lab.

“What we do here at the laboratory is we rear good insects, beneficial insects to control pest insects and also noxious or pest weeds,” he said.

In the mid-80s, New Jersey opened the Phillip Alampi Beneficial Insect Lab, a division of the state agriculture department. The lab raises good bugs to kill the bad ones and bad weeds that attack trees and plants and create an imbalance in the natural order of things.

“Most people say, ‘You mean you’re rearing bugs?’ Yeah. But, it’s unique. It’s interesting though and most people are not aware of it but when you explain the philosophy then most people are on board with it,” Dorsey said.

In one lab, the Mexican bean beetle lays its yellow eggs underneath a leaf.

“One thing typical of Mexican bean beetle damage is that they don’t actually chew the plant. They skeletonize the leaf. You get that lattice-type effect,” Dorsey said.

To counter that, the lab is raising tiny, sting-less wasps that live entirely on the Mexican bean beetle.

Dorsey says the lab is indispensable because foreign pests and plants enter the Garden State through seaports in Newark, Elizabeth, Bayonne and Camden.

The mile-a-minute weed came from Asia. The vine smothers and strangles its prey.

“They have these tendrils that attach to you,” Dorsey said.

The U.S. Agriculture Department determined tiny weevils would take on the vine. So, in 2004 the Beneficial Insect Lab began raising the weevils and has released them all over the state.

Doing nothing or doing it too late can lead to this — dead ash trees thanks to the emerald ash borer. Michigan entomologists sent this fix to the New Jersey lab.

If you think we should just leave it to the ecological system to take care of itself to balance things, then consider this: what would happen to the ash tree and America’s favorite pastime?

“You ever watch a Major League Baseball game and you see a guy swing at the ball and the bat explodes? That’s not an ash bat. That’s a maple bat,” said Mark Mayer, supervising entomologist at the Phillip Alampi Beneficial Insect Lab.

The one word the lab does not use to describe its work is “eradicate”. Instead, it uses control.

“Think of an ecosystem like an airplane. Every time you lose a species in the ecosystem, you’re popping a rivet. How rivets are you going to let pop before you let the ecosystem collapse or for the airplane to fly down? So what this is for is not to eradicate anything but to bring things back into balance,” Mayer said.

The lab has an annual budget of a half million dollars. It estimates that by limiting the use of pesticides and allowing nature to take care of nature, it’s saving more than $100 million a year and, of course, the environment, as well.