Biological Control

Jennifer E. Andreas, Eric M. Coombs, Joseph Milan, Mark Schwarzländer, and Carol Randall
Revised: 
March 2016

Classical biological weed control involves the introduction and management of selected host-specific natural enemies to reduce and suppress problematic weeds. The majority of the Pacific Northwest’s weeds originated from other continents. These newly introduced plants, freed from the natural enemies found in their native range, gained a competitive advantage over native plants allowing the introduced plants to become weedy. Once weed populations become unmanageable, herbicides, cultural, and mechanical methods of weed control are not always economical or physically possible. Classical weed biological control (biocontrol) is a method of weed control that is inexpensive, self-sustaining, and host specific, which reduces the risk biocontrol poses to the environment.

Once weed infestations become widespread, it is often assumed that biocontrol will solve the problem. But at this time, each new introduction of a biological weed control agent (BCA) in the United States has a success rate of only about one in three. In the Pacific Northwest, BCAs have shown well-documented success in the control of Mediterranean sage, St. Johnswort (Klamath weed), tansy ragwort, Dalmatian toadflax, purple loosestrife, diffuse knapweed, and leafy spurge. Preliminary information indicates emerging success for yellow toadflax using Mecinus janthinus.

Biocontrol is a slow process, and its efficacy is highly variable. Since it can take several years for BCA populations to build to levels capable of weed suppression, many BCAs have not been present or studied long enough to determine their ability to control their host weed. Only after monitoring weed and BCA populations over time will the impact of newly introduced BCAs become evident.

BCAs impact weeds directly and indirectly. They directly impact weeds by destroying plant tissues and interfering with plant functions. BCAs cause indirect impact by increasing stress on the weed, which may reduce its ability to compete with desirable plants.

Biocontrol can be integrated with other management practices to reduce weed populations. For example, once weeds are weakened by BCAs, competitive plantings may be used to out-compete the weeds. In addition, satellite weed populations can be controlled by herbicides or physical means to reduce weed spread while BCAs attack the primary infestation.

Similar to other weed control methods, biocontrol is not a silver bullet; it will not eradicate host weeds. When using BCAs, expect residual weed populations to persist, since a BCA’s survival depends on the presence of its host weed. After host weed populations decrease, populations of BCAs will decrease correspondingly. This is a natural cycle. Therefore, a resurgence of weed populations may occur due to seed reserves in the soil, host weed plants missed by the BCA, and lagging populations of BCAs. In areas where the BCAs do not provide sufficient control, other weed control methods may need to be integrated to achieve desired results, or a search for additional BCAs may be pursued.

The BCAs released in the Pacific Northwest have been tested to ensure they are host specific (i.e., they will only feed on the host weed species). Host specificity testing is an expensive and time-consuming task that must be done before a BCA is allowed to be introduced into the United States. Some BCAs cleared for use may have only a minor impact on host weed density. Other candidate BCAs, which could be effective in reducing host weed populations, may not be approved for introduction. One reason a candidate BCA may be rejected for release in the United States is that it is not sufficiently host specific; that is, the BCA, in the absence of its host weed, may move to crops, native flora, or endangered plant species.

Biocontrol of certain weeds may not work in your area, even if it does elsewhere. BCAs require specific conditions to survive and thrive. Climate variations, such as cold winters and plant biotype differences, may account for some past failures. To maximize success, trained personnel should supervise and monitor biocontrol programs. To monitor BCAs, the Standardized Impact Monitoring Protocol (SIMP) is recommended. More information on SIMP can be found by accessing the ISDA/BLM biocontrol website ( http://www.agri.state.id.us/Categories/PlantsInsects/NoxiousWeeds/Bio_Co... ), or by searching online for “BLM biological control.”

Once release sites for BCAs have been selected, protecting those areas is essential. BCA releases are often made with a small number of organisms. Establishing collectable populations of the BCA for redistribution to other weed infestations can take three to five years, and is generally the first goal of a new biocontrol program. Care should be taken to avoid moving diseased or parasitized immature stages of BCAs to new areas; moving them will reduce their efficacy. The current status and types of BCAs used in the Pacific Northwest are found in the tables in this section. Reintroducing BCAs may be required in areas where control was achieved if the host weed population resurged after severe weather or following wildfires, for example.

Biocontrol has many advantages but also some disadvantages. Advantages include: reducing herbicide residues in the environment; specificity on host weeds; long-term, self-perpetuating control; low cost per acre; host-finding capabilities; synchronizing BCAs to hosts weeds’ life cycles; and the unlikelihood that host weeds will develop resistance to BCAs. Disadvantages of biocontrol include: the limited availability of BCAs from their native lands; the dependence of control on plant density; the slow rate at which control occurs and uncertainty of the level of control; biotype matching; and host specificity when host populations are low.

Biocontrol programs require consistent funding, expertise, and interdisciplinary cooperation. Biocontrol of weeds is not a perfect solution for all weed management programs. It can, however, be used as an additional tool in combination with other weed management methods. Interdisciplinary vegetation management teams are working on weed problems to minimize adverse environmental and socioeconomic impacts.

The following tables contain lists of target weeds, and the status of selected BCAs by state.

If you are considering importing BCAs from another state, be aware that federal permits are required. To obtain a USDA-APHIS-PPQ Form 526, write: USDA-APHIS-PPQ, Biological Assessment and Taxonomic Support, 4700 River Road, Unit 113, Riverdale, MD 20737; or visit http://www.aphis.usda.gov/plant_health/permits/index.shtml

Anyone who implements classical biological weed control is encouraged to follow the International Code of Best Practices, presented at the 1999 International Symposium on Biological Control of Weeds. Briefly, this includes:

  • Releasing only approved BCAs
  • Using the most effective BCAs
  • Documenting releases
  • Monitoring for impacts on the host weed, nontarget species, and the environment

For more information about monitoring BCAs, contact your state department of agriculture or land-grant university.

The use of unapproved natural enemies [that is, accidentally introduced species such as Larinus carlinae (formerly L. planus), thistle seedhead weevil, Chaetorellia succinea, yellow starthistle seedhead fly, Coniatus splendidulus, saltcedar weevil, and Cassida rubiginosa, thistle tortoise beetle] as BCAs is not recommended because these unapproved natural enemies have the potential to cause negative nontarget impacts. In addition, the thistle seedhead weevil, Rhinocyllus conicus, and the root/crown weevil, Trichosirocalus horridus, are no longer approved for interstate shipment because of concerns over potential impacts to native thistle species. As of 2009, USDA APHIS suspended all permits for the interstate movement of the saltcedar beetle, Diorhabda carinulata (formerly D. elongata). Recently, the accidentally introduced houndstongue root weevil, Mogulones crucifer (formerly M. cruciger), was listed as a pest by USDA APHIS PPQ. Movement of this insect may result in severe penalties, as stated in the PPQ Pest Alert; “Unauthorized collection, transportation, and release of Mogulones crucifer as a BCA against houndstongue in the United States is a criminal violation of the Endangered Species Act, with penalties for punishable offenses ranging from a maximum fine of up to $50,000 or imprisonment for 1 year, or both, and civil penalties of up to $25,000 per violation. These actions are also a violation of the Plant Protection Act, with fines of up to $250,000 per count for noncompliance, or up to $1 million per adjudication if the violation is willful.”