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Issue 113: Meet Biological Services

July/August – 2010
Author: Stephen Goodwin and Marilyn Steiner

Few greenhouse growers in Australia would be aware of the history of Biological Services, nor of James Altmann’s passion for biocontrol and his dedication to integrated pest management in greenhouse crops.

James Altmann and Biological Services have come a long way since the mid 1990s. Over recent years he has worked tirelessly to improve the company’s range of biocontrol agents and to achieve success with them, often under challenging growing conditions. These days, Biological Services has an impressive list of products for all the key pests of greenhouse crops including thrips, whitefly, aphids, two-spotted mite, fungus gnats and shoreflies, and the company deserves recognition as the leading biocontrol producer and IPM practitioner for the greenhouse industry in Australia. Not content with this achievement, James continues his search for new biocontrol agents for greenhouse crops through ongoing research.

The Company
James Altmann is Managing Director of Biological Services, while his wife Simone supervises the business administration. As the saying goes: “Behind every successful man, there is a good woman!” The business is based in the small country town of Loxton, on the bank of the Murray River in South Australia, about 3 hours inland from Adelaide. Biological Services has the distinction of being the first commercial insectary in Australia, set up in 1975 to produce Aphytis melinus for the control of red scale in citrus.

A young James Altmann came under the influence of Dr Noel Richardson, one of the SARDI researchers responsible for the introduction of Aphytis parasites into Australia in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1978 Noel was the entomology lecturer at Roseworthy College in Roseworthy, South Australia, where James developed an interest in agricultural entomology under his tutelage. James graduated from there, later undertaking a graduate diploma in plant protection at Queensland University, where he met Simone, who was also studying for the same qualification. An enduring interest in entomology and in particular biocontrol saw them eventually purchase Biological Services in 1987, servicing the Riverland, Sunraysia and Murrumbidgee Irrigation citrus areas of Southern Australia with an IPM scouting service (Fruit Doctors Pty Ltd) and providing red scale parasites from the insectary. These days the business employs 15 full- and part-time staff, comprising James and Simone, three admin staff, a greenhouse and insectary manager, and the remainder responsible for the rearing of beneficials, production of nursery plants, and harvest and despatch of products.

While we have known James for many years now, we quickly came to appreciate his qualities, still evident today, that make him so good at what he does. Biocontrol production is a business, a science and a passion for James. He has an enquiring mind, a great eye for insect and mite identification and an ability to work out effective rearing methods for his bugs, an absolute necessity if a business such as this is to succeed and prosper. Dan Papacek of Bugs for Bugs at Mundubbera, Queensland, and Lachlan Chilman, Manchil IPM Services in WA, also have the same qualities, but more about them and their IPM businesses in future articles.

Australian greenhouse crop producers can rest easy. James is a cluey bloke with a strong interest in what he does, which is a good recipe for success. He doesn’t just sell beneficial bugs, but knows their strengths and weaknesses and can advise how best to use them in a range of crop IPM programs, under the multiplicity of growing conditions that exist in Australia.

Any grower passing through South Australia should make a point of visiting James. He is always happy to talk about his bugs and your issues, but make sure you ring ahead as he is a busy man and of course to give the red wine time to breathe. He is reputed to have a magnificent wine cellar!

Development of the greenhouse biocontrol business
In 1988, James introduced the spider mite predator Typhlodromus occidentalis into his insectary, mainly for use in stone and pome fruit crops. It has also been used in some greenhouse situations where temperatures are high and humidity is low. James saw the tremendous progress and success that was occurring with practical biocontrol programs in the greenhouse industry overseas and made a decision to put Biological Services into this field in Australia.

In the 1990s he established his first cultures of biocontrol agents specifically for greenhouse pests (Table 1), and received a Churchill Fellowship to study mass rearing techniques for biocontrol agents in the US and Canada. He commenced with the introduction in 1992 of the imported greenhouse whitefly parasitoid Encarsia formosa, with further introductions of new biocontrol agents continuing to this day and most likely into the future, such is his commitment to this industry. We used to say that Australia didn’t have the comprehensive range of biocontrol agents available overseas. While we still have not quite reached this point, through the efforts principally of Biological Services, the list continues to grow and more comprehensive IPM programs for key pests are now available for the major greenhouse and hydroponic crops.

The Australian greenhouse industry is small compared with that in most other developed countries. This makes it difficult for biocontrol producers to develop new biocontrol agents at the rate they are introduced into commercial production overseas, as it is an expensive business to set up and returns are relatively small. It also takes a lot of R&D to develop a new organism and each one needs to be learnt from scratch as intellectual knowledge is closely guarded by overseas companies rearing similar organisms. As Australia is a small market, Biological Services has focused on trying to develop new products rather than duplicating those already produced by other insectaries in this country. Where possible James also engages in research collaborations with universities and government research institutions, but resources in this area are dwindling with public sector funding cuts.

We have been collaborating with James since the mid-1990s. During this time, while we were looking for new, effective biocontrol agents for western flower thrips (WFT), Frankliniella occidentalis, we discovered the ground dwelling predatory mite Stratiolaelaps scimitus (Hypoaspis-M), previously, but incorrectly, referred to as Hypoaspis miles overseas. It is very useful for fungus gnat larval control, and thrips larval and pupal control on the ground. We developed a small-scale rearing method as a starting point to commercial production and passed this on to James. In 1998 he added this beneficial to his business.

We like to think that 1999 was a turning point for greenhouse biocontrol in Australia. In that year we brought five overseas IPM and biocontrol experts to Australia (see our article PH&G Issue 104 January/February 2009, Biocontrol is Good Agricultural Practice, for a picture to remind you of the visiting group). Amongst these were representatives of biocontrol companies from the UK and The Netherlands. Over the course of one week they participated in industry workshops in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne and did much to lift awareness of, and enthusiasm for, IPM and biocontrol in greenhouse crops. James also benefited from this experience. In 2001 he introduced a second soil predatory mite Hypoaspis aculeifer (Hypoaspis-A) through the efforts of Dr Irene Vänninen, a Finnish researcher who spent a sabbatical working in Dr Dave Walter’s lab at Queensland University. She identified that this strain had a higher propensity to feed on thrips than any other soil predatory mite in her studies or previously reported in the literature.

In 2003, we found and recommended a further three beneficials to James: Neoseiulus cucumeris (thrips), Aphidius colemani (aphids), Dalotia coriaria (fungus gnats, shorefly, thrips). All have since been put into commercial culture and use. Currently, James is in the process of adding the native parasitoid Eretmocerus warrae (greenhouse whitefly) as well as Neoseiulus wearnei (two spotted mite) and Aphelinus abdominalis (aphids) to the list of available biocontrol agents. Neoseiulus wearnei is a spider mite predator that can tolerate hot, dry conditions. Assumed to be a native of Australia, it was collected from a sprayed stonefruit orchard in Renmark, SA, after the heat wave in 2009. This predator should work very similarly to Neoseiulus californicus overseas, as it is possible that these species may be one and the same. It will be a good backup for Phytoseiulus persimilis in summer, which is not as effective in hot, dry conditions.

It is worth noting that the Australian Environmental Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act makes it exceedingly difficult to import overseas biocontrol agents into Australia. For this reason all of the biocontrol agents in Table 1 were obtained from naturally occurring populations in Australia.

Biological Services is presently collaborating with Lachlan Chilman of Manchil IPM Services in the development of another native biocontrol agent: the predatory bug, Orius armatus (see our article PH&G Issue 110 January/February 2010, Predatory bugs to enhance biocontrol in Australia). For us, this is an exciting new development because Orius feeds on all life stages of thrips, including adults. Various Orius species are produced throughout the world, and while we have been aware of O. armatus for some time, it is only now that it has become commercially available to growers of various crops and particularly of capsicums in Australia.

Biological Services’s IPM Programs
We thought we might provide IPM programs for two crops as examples of what Biological Services has to offer in 2010.

Tomato
Tomato is the major greenhouse crop in Australia and its IPM program revolves mostly around the control of greenhouse whitefly and releases of Encarsia formosa. Initial pre-infestation releases are made at low rates in a preventative manner until whitefly is detected in the crop. Once whitefly occurs, higher rates are recommended to ensure Encarsia establishes quickly and evenly through the crop. Biological Services has recently added Eretmocerus warrae, a greenhouse whitefly-specific parasitoid, to its product range. This native parasitoid is able to withstand very hot summer temperatures that do not favour Encarsia. It also appears to fly well during dull conditions, which may make it useful in colder months, when low light levels can occur. James has been able to establish it in a range of crops and environments and believes that it will be a useful companion to Encarsia. This parasitoid is widespread in southern Australia. The strain selected by Biological Services, collected at Virginia in South Australia after a severe heat wave in March 2009, was close to greenhouses that were sprayed regularly with harsh pesticides. Currently, Biological Services is offering Eretmocerus to selected growers on a trial basis in 2010, to determine how it performs in crops and the best release strategy (see our article in PH&G Issue 112 May/June 2010, Eretmocerus warrae – new Australian biocontrol agent for greenhouse whitefly nears market).

Capsicum
Capsicum was selected because it has a range of important pests and also because biocontrol agents can be supported by ample nectar and pollen provided in the flowers in times of sparse pest numbers. James reports that IPM programs for capsicums have previously been working well in areas with low WFT pressure. Where WFT pressure is moderate/high, virus transmission is inevitable, requiring pesticide applications that interfere with the biocontrol program. However, the recent collaboration with Manchil IPM Services to develop Orius armatus as a key predator, capable of lowering WFT to sub-economic levels, produced some excellent results in the first year of trial releases in 2009-10. More widespread commercial releases are planned for 2010. Introductions of N. cucumeris for thrips and broadmite establish quickly and easily, as do Aphidius for aphids, Hypoaspis and Dalotia for fungus gnats and thrips ground-dwelling stages, and P. persimilis for two spotted mite.

Where WFT is the major pest Hypoaspis-A is recommended, however, if thrips numbers are low and fungus gnats predominate Hypoaspis-M is used. So now nearly all the major pests have the potential to be controlled biologically. This allows other naturally occurring beneficials into the crop, such as Anystis mites and apple dimpling bug, Campylomma liebknechti, which also feed on thrips. Extra research is required on these organisms to quantify their importance as potential biocontrol agents, and whether they can be reared in insectary conditions for release into crops. The need for spraying in capsicums has now been dramatically reduced, and only compatible pesticides are recommended to redress pest/beneficial imbalances and to minimise impact on beneficials.

Biological Services has recently revitalised its website and comprehensive information on each biocontrol product covering life history and biology, crop use, environmental preferences, application information, monitoring for success, handy tips and pesticide compatibility can be found at www.biologicalservices.com.au.

Challenges for Biological Services
The extreme summer heat at the insectary site at Loxton and greenhouse production sites across the country calls for special packaging and transportation arrangements to ensure biocontrol agents are in top notch condition on arrival at their destination. Biological Services dispatches all products on Mondays and Tuesdays and uses Express Post or couriers to deliver direct to the customer in most instances. Those districts with several greenhouse producers may have a distributor to service them. However, this is generally not the case. Biological Services has many small, relatively isolated clients, spread throughout this vast country from tropical to temperate zones, rather than aggregated in specific growing precincts. This makes delivery challenging, particularly in summer. Biocontrol deliveries by Express Post should be picked up as soon as they arrive and released straight away, not left in the mailbox in the sun.

The insectary site is isolated from commercial growing areas, which in any case are far flung, so James developed a production greenhouse at Loxton for trialing his IPM programs and to conduct early crop trials with new biocontrol agents. It is also used to demonstrate, to commercial growers, pesticide-free crops growing in close proximity to where the pests are reared in massive numbers. This is the best example of IPM in practice a grower could hope to see.

As an aside, it has enabled him to open up a new business opportunity as the local township has taken quite a shine to his fresh vegetables.

The demand for new biocontrol agents continues. A predatory bug for whiteflies, available in most other countries, would be a valuable addition. Unfortunately, a project application we submitted to HAL in 2009, to initiate research into this topic, was unsuccessful, largely because funding for vegetable R&D has been cut back. We will persevere.

Expanding demand for an ever-increasing range of biocontrol products has put pressure on facilities to house the various cultures and packing areas. New biocontrol agents often start out in life as ‘pets’, but there is a limit to the number of these that can be maintained and developed by a small company. Fortunately, the SARDI (South Australian Research & Development Institute) research station at Loxton has allowed Biological Services to utilise some of its research insectary assets that are no longer used, presenting additional greenhouse and controlled temperature space. This is very timely for Biological Services and James is extremely appreciative of SARDI’s support.

Biological Services was a financial supporter of the industry application to introduce the bumblebee Bombus terrestris onto the mainland and in the research program into the native bluebanded bee Amegilla cingulata, both efforts failing to deliver a commercial outcome for this industry. He provided greenhouse facilities for the researcher to test the crop pollination capacity of the latter species and is disappointed at the continuing lack of a pollinator for tomato and other greenhouse crops.

However, Biological Services is still keen to develop a bumblebee production facility if they are ever given the ‘green light’ by the Federal Government. A biological pollinator would be very attractive to many greenhouse producers. Any growers utilising bees would need to modify their pesticide use, meaning their pest control would have to be biologically based. Therefore it would immediately help reduce pesticide use, which is of benefit to the grower, farm workers, and ultimately the consumer and the environment.

As the business grows, one of the bigger challenges facing Biological Services is to develop packaging systems that will make delivery into the crop easier for growers and more efficient and reliable in terms of releasing the biocontrol agent at the targeted site (see our article in PH&G Issue 105, March/April 2009, Putting Bugs in their Place).

James is always available to talk to growers about their pest problems and an IPM program to suit their needs. He can be contacted on Ph 08 8584-6977/0427 846 977; fax 08 8584-5057; or at info@biologicalservices.com.au – further information can be obtained at www.biologicalservices.com.au

About the authors
Since their retirement from NSW DPI, Stephen Goodwin and Marilyn Steiner have established a new business on Mangrove Mountain on the NSW Central Coast. Biocontrol Solutions is a consulting company in the area of IPM in protected crops, particularly in the development and use of biocontrol agents. Marilyn and Stephen between them have over 50 years’ experience in the field. Email: mands@ceinternet.com.au

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