The Rewards of Research
Tiny wasps put 'sting operation' on pesky flies
Business & Technology
Abilene Reporter-News Sunday, July 20, 1997
By J.T. Smith
0l' Bossy once used a lot of energy "swishing flies" with her tail. But at the 30,000-head capacity Abilene Cattle Feeders, cows are contented. ACF keeps flies under constant control - even in the hot and humid summertime.
Gary and Theresa Gentry use tiny wasps with a fancy name –Spalangia nigroaenea - in sort of a "sting operation" against flies.
The parasites are harmless to humans - and so small they are tough to see - but nevertheless, the little wasps pack a huge punch.
These highly beneficial insects seek out the fly pupa. The wasp lays its egg inside the fly pupa as part of its own reproduction cycle.
To do this, the one-eighth-inch wasp uses its "stinger" called an ovipositor The wasp larvae then eats up the pest fly's larvae inside the pupa. Completing the cycle, a new adult wasp - instead of a new fly - will emerge and look for more fly pupae to destroy.
"It's neat," Gary notes. 'Works great for us.’"
The little wasp does not sting humans or other animals.
The ACF manager gives the credit to Theresa for diligently seeing that the tiny wasps are "distributed" throughout the huge feedlot once per week.
ACF gets the wasps from Kunafin, a company in Quemado, Texas that supplies beneficial insects. Although family owned and operated by Frank and Adele Junfin, the Kunafin Company now supplies beneficial insects to operations throughout the United States.
In addition to the big cattle feedlots, Kunafin provides the wasps to dairies, poultry houses, horse barns, hog operations and kennels.
Here Come the Wasps
Every week, just west of Abilene, a UPS truck winds down the old pavement on what was once the site of old Camp Barkeley in World War II, now the home of ACF, a state of-the-art cattle feeding operation.
The delivery truck carries a package about the size of a hat box. Theresa is waiting for truck. While Gary is a former Airborne Ranger with the Green Berets, it doesn't take the powerful 6-foot-4 mass of man to handle the box. Even though it contains 400,000 wasps/eggs, Theresa can handle the job easily.
"It, takes just about an hour to an hour and a half to do the whole feedyard," Theresa reports.
All of the couple's four children - Lela, Joshua, Colton, and Cayman -are working during the summer months at ACE, along with some other young helpers, Theresa has plenty of assistance in tossing the wasps and wasp eggs.
Theresa and her crew throw the parasites on Wednesday or Thursday – as soon as she finds time in her busy office schedule.
"The wasps can jump." Gary notes. "And they can travel about 100 yards from the birthplace."
The combination of eggs and wasps are contained in plastic bags inside the box.
"They look just like bags of wild rice." Theresa observes.
She takes a handful - then flings them in to the air.
"Theresa is real good at this." Gary assures with a big grin.
Beneficial insects have long been sought by crop producers like cotton farmers to control pests in fields.
Lady bugs have been used for decades. Trichomamma wasps have been commonly used in more recent years for various crops.
But biological control was usually just an extra weapon and not used exclusively because of the availability of cheap and effective insecticides in the past.
Pesticides are no longer cheap. Many insects have developed some level of resistance. And nowadays, there is more awareness and public concern for the environment.
All of this has resulted in fresh looks at biological ways to control certain pests.
Since 1959, Kunafin has been involved in producing and supplying beneficial insects for biological control programs.
The insectary was founded by Joe and Frank Junfin. Joe, an entomologist trained in Europe, and his son. Frank, an entomology graduate at Texas A&M University, began consulting with farmers and providing the Trichogramma wasps to growers to use in field crops.
In 1978, the mass rearing facilities for the production of various fly parasites was established.
A Pioneer in His Field
Joe, a native of Russia, immigrated to Texas in 1956. His early work in establishing Integrated Pest Management (IPM) through the release of beneficial insects in more than 25,000 acres of cotton in the Winter Garden area became widely recognized. He is considered a pioneer in the science of biological pest control.
Frank and his wife, Adele, a registered nurse, have expanded his father's work into the livestock industry -such as destroying filthy flies.
About 17 years ago, Frank began experimenting with a local cattle feedyard and clearly saw results in controlling flies in livestock operations with their beneficial warriors.
Next, they applied the same methods to a dairy in San Angelo. The dairy animals showed less irritation - and thus, had a better chance to produce more milk.
Today milking operations that use the Kunafin beneficials vary from as small as 20 cattle to as many as 10,000 head.
The Junfin family gives credit to research centers, land grant co1leges such as Texas A&M, and USDA in helping them refine their work. They travel a multitude of miles in efforts to fine tune their research.
Murray Edwards, president of ACF, is thrilled with the natural way that the little wasps make an enormous impact in keeping the cattle free of flies at ACF -while going easy on the environment.
The 1973 graduate of Texas A&M University and Harvard MBA stays on the cutting edge of advances in agribusiness. As the technology is modernized, Edwards feels biologicals will continue to play a big role in pest control in toward the year 2000 and beyond.
It still may be many years of research away Edwards says, but biologicals also may some day become a true method to stop the spread of ever-menacing fire ants.