Half-billion ‘bug soldiers’ to keep crops pest-free

Hungry ‘good’ insects eat the bugs that farmers would otherwise need pesticides to get rid of

The Justin Timberlake melon is safe, thanks to Beauty of Vegetables 'bug army' (Courtesy Ein Yahav)
The Justin Timberlake melon is safe, thanks to Beauty of Vegetables 'bug army' (Courtesy Ein Yahav)

To keep pests from eating crops and destroying farmers’ yields, agricultural experts at Moshav Ein Yahav have hired an “army” of predatory bugs – a half billion very hungry bugs that will feast on the harmful insects like thrips, whiteflies, and mites that can eat their way through the pumpkins, peppers, melons, tomatoes, and other crops grown in the village. The “bug army” will be sent into the field next week, as farmers prepare for a new growing season.

Over 100 farmers work the fields at Ein Yahav, one of Israel’s largest farming communities. With the help of a local organization called “Beauty of Vegetables,” the farmers have been able to dispense with most of their dangerous pesticides, instead using bugs like Orius laevigatus, commonly called insidious flower bug; the “Svirski,” Amblyseius (Typhlodromips) swirskii, a polyphagous predatory mite; the Presimillis, a mite eater, and parasitic wasps – all natural enemies of the pests.

The bugs are shipped to farmers in refrigerated trucks, which are then deployed in the hothouses and storage areas that are full of ripe crops, ready to be shipped to customers. “We use a technique called ‘integrated pest management,’ IPM, which means the use of chemicals is very limited,” said Rami Sadeh, staff agronomist at Beauty of Vegetables. “We usually use natural enemies of insects that cause damage, and if we do spray, it’s only on a small scale for the one or two plants with high infestation. It costs us more money per dunam, but we can sleep well knowing we are not using chemicals.” Thanks to the system, he said, farmers have been able to cut pesticide use by about 80%.

Ein Yahav, in the Arava desert south of the Dead Sea, next to the border with Jordan, has been working with the bug-based IPM system for about a decade, said Sadeh. “It took farmers time to see that they can rely on this technique,” says Sadeh. “At the beginning, the problem was proving that IPM could do the job. Now, almost 100 percent of the farmers in the Arava are using this technique.”

According to Sadeh, the bugs in Ein Yahav’s insect “army” are interested only in one thing – eating the pests that attack crops. They do not eat vegetables and fruits themselves, and when their supply of pests is gone, they either move on or die. In any event, the vegetables are washed thoroughly before they are sent to wholesalers, so no insects “can catch a ride on the vegetables,” he noted.

Ein Yahav is one of the biggest vegetable exporters in Israel, especially of peppers and melons, and has also made headlines: Last year, Ein Yahav farmers reported that they had set a record for the world’s largest pepper, which weighed in at 600 grams (1.3 pounds). And in May of this year, farmers named a new version of a locally-grown melon after singer Justin Timberlake.

The Justin Melons, giant peppers, and everything else grown at Ein Yahav are safe from pests, and from pesticides as well, thanks to a half billion “good” bugs, said Sadeh. “It’s like a giant, hungry army,” said Sadeh. “Ein Yahav is a battlefield for biological warfare, the good kind.”

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