Predators by drone: Biological control research

Apr 11, 2024

Two of the worst pests plaguing lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley area are aphids, specifically lettuce-currant aphids (Nasovonia ribisnigri), and western flower thrips (Frankliniella occidentalis). Lettuce-currant aphid is an invasive pest that sets up shop in the heart of the lettuce plant and will render the crop unsellable when it reaches high enough numbers. Thrips can both cause cosmetic damage to lettuce crops and are also responsible for the spread of Salinas impatiens necrotic spot virus (INSV), the fatal lettuce disease that has driven large losses since the 2020 growing season.

While effective tools exist to control both aphids and thrips, they are almost exclusively chemical. Chemical sprays are increasingly under pressure due to changes in the regulatory framework in California as well as the development of pest resistance and discoveries of key chemistries in area watersheds1,2. The UC Davis FiVE lab biological control research program addresses a growing interest in developing alternative tools for managing both pests that do not rely on chemical applications. Biological control provides an opportunity for the management of thrips and aphids that do not rely on chemical tools.

Biological control is defined as the use of natural enemies to control a target pest. Three general categories of biological control could possibly be used as management practices for lettuce pests in the Salinas Valley area:


• Conservation biological control refers to the establishment and maintenance of resources and conditions favorable

to a native or endemic beneficial species. Instead of releasing predators into crop fields, specific types of flowers and other habitats are planted to attract beneficial species that are already a part of the local ecosystem. To date, most efforts on biological control in lettuce have used the conservation biological control approach. 

• Inundative biological control involves the release of a beneficial insect species in large numbers with the expectation that the beneficials that are released will only provide control for a short amount of time before eventually dying out. Such releases would need to be repeated at regular intervals for the duration of the growing cycle for a crop.

 • Augmentative biological control refers to the use of releases of smaller numbers of beneficials to areas where a smaller population of the species already exists, but not in numbers great enough to provide adequate control of the targeted pest species. The goal of augmentative releases is to bolster already-existent populations of beneficial species so they achieve great enough numbers to provide control of the pest or pests of interest.

Conservation biological control in the Salinas Valley

Syrphid flies

Aphid pests of lettuce have been effectively managed in some lettuce production systems through the planting of sweet alyssum adjacent to and interspersed within crop fields3. Sweet alyssum is a favorite of the Syrphid fly (Diptera: Syrphidae), the primary biological control agent used to control aphid pests in lettuce. Syrphids, also called hoverflies or flower flies, are a family of black and yellow pigmented flies which resemble bees and stinging wasps. The coloration is a protective camouflage; Syrphid flies are harmless to humans. Syrphid adults are frequently seen visiting flowers for their nectar and pollen, which the insect consumes both as an energy source and to support their reproduction.

In exchange the female Syrphid flies will lay eggs in lettuce plants with lettuce aphid infestations, the primary food source for their young. Once the eggs hatch, the syrphid maggots, which are predatory on slow, soft-bodied insects, will feed on the aphids and suppress their population. Syrphid larvae are known to be voracious; some California species have been shown to consume upwards of 100 aphids per day4!

Syrphids are the intended beneficiaries of most conservation biological control in central coast lettuce fields, but other beneficial species take advantage of these resources as well.

Other predatory species love sweet alyssum

Many other biological control agents are supported by insectary plantings5. Ladybird beetles often inhabit lettuce fields and may provide some control of lettuce aphid infestations. Common lacewings (family Chrysopidae) are also found in lettuce fields and insectary plantings. Lacewings, which are only predatory in their immature or larval life stage, can provide biological control services against lettuce aphids and western flower thrips. Minute pirate bug (Orius sp.) and aphid midges (Aphidoletes aphidimyza) have also been observed in and collected from insectary plantings in lettuce fields, but it is not known the extent to which they can suppress populations of lettuce aphid or Western flower thrips.

 UC Davis Fi-VE Bug IPM Lab biological control research programs

Including insectary plantings to attract naturally occurring predators has historically been the only efficient way to get beneficial species into crop fields. Newly developed technology using drones as a dispersal tool may provide another option for growers interested in using biological control as part of their pest management programs for aphids and thrips. This technology drastically reduces the time and labor required to conduct large releases of laboratory-reared beneficial insects, making the approach more feasible for growers.

As part of a research program funded by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (CA DPR) and in collaboration with Daniel Hasegawa at USDA-ARS and with Parabug, we are studying the release of biological control agents using drones for the management of aphid and thrips pests of lettuce crops. Our three experimental programs are as follows:

In-field inundative releases of green lacewing larvae and predatory cucumeris mites to control aphids and thrips in lettuce 

Experiments run by former Monterey County IPM Advisor Alejandro Del Pozo-Valdivia found that a single inundative release of green lacewing eggs (Chrysoperla rufilabris) in lettuce fields reduced aphid pressure six weeks after release6. Our experiment builds on Alejandro's work, examining whether repeated releases of green lacewing eggs throughout the lettuce growing cycle reduce aphid numbers. Additionally, the experiment includes two treatments aimed at suppressing western flower thrips: inundative releases of a species of predatory mite (Amblyseius cucumeris), and a combined release of both predatory mites and green lacewing eggs. 

 Augmentative releases to bolster non-syrphid predatory species in insectary strips and intercropped alyssum

Other native predators of aphids and thrips are present in the insectary plantings growers use to attract syrphids, but their numbers are too low to provide suppression of thrips and aphids in adjacent crops. These species are reared by commercial insectaries, but using them in an inundative release could prove too costly for growers. Experiments in this program examine the use of smaller releases of these predatory species early in the growing cycle over insectary plantings. The goal is to determine whether the presence of floral resources allows the predators to stick around and build up enough in population to control aphids and thrips in the crop field. Experiments will be conducted with aphid midge (Aphidoletes aphidimyza), an aphid predator, and minute pirate bug (Orius insidiosus), a predator of western flower thrips. 

 Augmentative releases to manage thrips in non-crop areas

Western flower thrips plague not just vegetable crop fields but also the vegetation surrounding crop areas. In this experiment, we will examine whether releases of cucumeris mites and minute pirate bugs over field edges planted with ice plant will establish these predators in the vegetation and provide long-term suppression of western flower thrips.





  1. Deng, X. Study 321: Surface water monitoring for pesticides in agricultural areas in the Central Coast and southern California (2022)
  2. Gao, Y., Lei, Z. & Reitz, S. R. Western flower thrips resistance to insecticides: detection, mechanisms and management strategies. Pest Manag. Sci. 68, 1111–1121 (2012).
  3. Brennan, E. B. Agronomic aspects of strip intercropping lettuce with alyssum for biological control of aphids. Biol. Control 65, 302–311 (2013).
  4. Hopper, J. V., Nelson, E. H., Daane, K. M. & Mills, N. J. Growth, development and consumption by four syrphid species associated with the lettuce aphid, Nasonovia ribisnigri, in California. Biol. Control 58, 271–276 (2011).
  5. Bugg, R. L., Colfer, R. G., Chaney, W. E., Smith, H. A. & Cannon, J. Flower Flies (Syrphidae) and Other Biological Control Agents for Aphids in Vegetable Crops. (University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources, 2008). doi:10.3733/ucanr.8285.
  6. Del Pozo-Valdivia, A. I., Morgan, E. & Bennett, C. In-Field Evaluation of Drone-Released Lacewings for Aphid Control in California Organic Lettuce. J. Econ. Entomol. 114, 1882–1888 (2021).