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Take A Look Inside The Colorado Lab Trying To Breed Better, More Helpful Bugs

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Dan Garrison
/
for Harvest Public Media

Halfway down a dead-end road in the small farming town of Palisade, Colorado, is a research facility known as "The Insectary." Scientists at the lab develop "biocontrol insects," bugs adapted to attacking other insects and the plants harmful to agriculture. Colorado's Insectary is the oldest and largest facility of its kind in the United States.

It's here that the Colorado Department of Agriculture is finding ways to kill pests dead – without the aid of chemicals.

The pioneering program began in response to a peach pest, Oriental fruit moth, which devastated local crops in the 1930s and 1940s. The famed Palisade peach industry was saved by successfully introducing the perfect predator to control the moth: the parasitic wasp, Macrocentrus ancylivorus.

Today, the facility's angular, modern design stands out in its rural setting, but it reflects the groundbreaking science going on inside. Room after room is full of pesky insects and noxious weeds that have been introduced into the United States – accidentally or on purpose – over the years and are proven plagues to food and field.

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The Insectary staff is busy studying the beneficial bugs that may eradicate these threats. It's serious research that can take a decade or two before confirming a potential biocontrol insect is sure to be on target in its attacks and not become a pest itself.

"We want to make certain the agents we release are safe – the number one priority is safety," Insectary manager Dan Bean said. "We want to make sure we don't release something that's going to feed on a 'non-target' as we say."

Once these bugs are available for general release in Colorado, and on a more limited basis in other states, they've already passed the Insectary's rigorous test as natural agents that can replace expensive, chemical pesticides and potentially do the least possible harm to the environment.

Bean sees the use of biocontrol insects as, "an important part of organic farming and for farmers that are using pesticides it is an important way for them to reduce pesticide use."

This story was produced by Rocky Mountain PBS and Colorado Mesa University for Harvest Public Media

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