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Bugs control pests at Union College (N.Y.) and beyond

Ladybugs and preying mantises allow campuses to reduce use of pesticides
The Union College grounds crew releases ladybugs to eat insects that damage trees on campus. (Photo by Matt Milless)

There’s not a tree that grows in the northeast that can’t be found on the campus of Union College in upstate New York, the manager of the institution’s grounds says.

But ladybugs and praying mantises—not insecticides—are the main tools the small college in Schenectady uses to protect a lush arboreal asset that some say helps prospective students pick Union over competing institutions.

“We’re not just blanketing the campus landscape with different insecticides,” says grounds manager Tom Heisinger. Union uses about 80 percent to 85 percent less pesticide thanks to the beneficial bugs.

Heisinger has been releasing the bugs for about 15 years, with a budget of about $500 to $600. This year, thanks to a $2,000 Green Grant from Union College President Stephen C. Ainlay, he has expanded the program to cover more of the campus. He will release 350,000 ladybugs and 10,000 praying mantises along with one other insect, called green lacewing. Their job is to eat aphids and other soft bodied insects that harm certain campus trees.

“I haven’t sprayed any insecticides in years for these types of plants,” Heisinger says. Meghan Haley-Quiqley, a 2011 Union graduate and the college’s sustainability coordinator, says students have responded positively to the ladybugs.

“I’ve gotten a lot of emails saying, ‘This is really cool, but I don’t want to be there [when they’re released] because I’m afraid of bugs,” she says.

Union isn’t the only campus cutting down on insecticides and other chemicals. In 2009, Cornell University (N.Y.) released a predator beetle to control a pest called the wooly adelgid, says Niles Barnes, senior program coordinator for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

“Integrated pest management” plans incorporating greener practices aren’t uncommon. “There are definitely a number of campuses that have developed integrated pest management plans to manage the campus grounds, cutting down on pesticides and herbicides to promote the health of humans and non-pest wildlife,” Barnes says. “One thing institutions have found is that integrated pest management allows them to maintain attractive campus and also minimize cost.”