Ecology in the service of biological control: The case of entomopathogenic nematodes

Randy Gaugler, Edwin Lewis, Robin J. Stuart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

103 Scopus citations


Biological control manipulations of natural enemies to reduce pest populations represent large-scale ecological experiments that have both benefited from and contributed to various areas of modern ecology. Unfortunately, economic expediency and the need for rapid implementation often require that biological control programs be based more on trial and error than on sound ecological theory and testing. This approach has led to sortie remarkable successes but it has also produced dismal failures. This point is particularly well illustrated in the historical development and use of entomopathogenic nematodes for the biological control of insect pests. Intense effort has focused on developing these natural enemies as alternatives to chemical insecticides, in part because laboratory assays indicated that these nematodes possess a broad host range. This illusory attribute launched hundreds of field releases, many of which failed due to ecological barriers to infection that are not apparent from laboratory exposures, where conditions are optimal and host-parasite contact assured. For example, the entomopathogenic nematode Steinernema carpocapsae is a poor choice to control scarab larvae because this nematode uses an ambusher foraging strategy near the soil surface whereas the equally sedentary scarab remains within the soil profile, shows a weak host recognition response to scarabs, has difficulty overcoming the scarab immune response, and has low reproduction in this host. Conversely, two other nematodes, Heterorhabditis bacteriophora and S. glaseri, are highly adapted to parasitize scarabs: they use a cruising foraging strategy, respond strongly to scarabs, easily overcome the immune response, and reproduce well in these hosts. Increased understanding of the ecology of entomopathogenic nematodes has enabled better matches between parasites and hosts, and more accurate predictions of field performance. These results underline the importance of a strong partnership between basic and applied ecology in the area of biological control.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)483-489
Number of pages7
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 2 1997

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Biological control
  • Host acceptance
  • Host habitat-finding
  • Host-finding
  • Nematode

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