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Originally published Monday, June 14, 2010 at 8:48 PM

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Connell organic farmer using 'beetle banks'

Organic farmer Brad Bailie is a believer in bugs. Strips of blooming plants in a maze of colors — from blue bachelor buttons to ...

Tri-City Herald

CONNELL, Franklin County — Organic farmer Brad Bailie is a believer in bugs.

Strips of blooming plants in a maze of colors — from blue bachelor buttons to white yarrow — dot his 600-acre farm north of Connell. They border fields of potatoes, onions, shallots, primitive heritage wheat varieties spelt and einkorn, and camelina.

In each strip, insects from wasps to flies and lady bugs search for plant-damaging insects or larvae to eat.

Next to one strip is a long patch with green timothy and orchard grass and fescue jutting out from tufts of dead grass — a "beetle bank" that provides year-round protection for ground beetles that dine on other insects and weed seeds.

Bailie is among a few row-crop and vegetable farmers in Washington and Oregon who have created habitat for beetle banks, which originated in England and have been widely used in New Zealand.

While the practice is not widespread in this country, researchers say beetle banks show promise as another tool in the growing sustainable-farming movement to control crop-damaging bug pests and weeds through integrated pest management.

That can include ecological and biological controls, such as the use of such so-called beneficial insects as ground beetles, wasps, lacewings, parasitoid tachinid flies and damsel bugs.

Tree-fruit farmers have tapped biological controls for years: Researchers in the 1960s discovered a predatory mite that was effective in controlling mites, said Vince Jones, professor and entomologist at Washington State University's Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center.

Beetle banks, essentially berms of soil anchored by the roots of grasses, protect beetles from plows and other farm equipment and provide shelter to survive the winter. They are designed to mimic hedgerows, said Alec McErlich, an agronomist from New Zealand who introduced the concept to Bailie.

From the banks, the beetles can venture out into adjoining fields to feed.

The beetles will eat some weed seeds, said Rick Boydston, an agronomist with the USDA's Vegetable and Forage Crop Research Unit in Prosser, Benton County, who's involved with research on weed control through use of beneficial insects.

But scientists don't yet know specifics about beetle behavior and their exact diet. So last week in Bailie's fields, plastic cups marked by yellow flags were scattered at varying distances from the beetle bank by Terry Miller, an entomologist with Aggrobiotic Ecological Consulting of Moscow, Idaho.

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Miller, who has worked with Bailie since he began farming organically eight years ago, had 120 of these pitfall traps. He baited each with different seeds or insects, from aphids to mustard seed.

"We're measuring how far some got out and what they're feeding on," Miller said.

Bailie, a WSU crop-sciences graduate, said he can't quantify yet how effective the beetle bank and other beneficial insects have been on the land that's been in his family since 1915.

"I do know I have not had any serious pest outbreaks," he said.

A drawback of beetle banks and creating and preserving habitat for other beneficial insects, however, is that it takes acreage out of crop production. Beetles also can take several years to colonize a bank, Ellen said.

"You also have to understand a lot about insect life cycles to deal with beneficials," Bailie said. "I think any habitat you create on your farm is a positive thing, though."

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