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The Buzz on Insectaries

The Buzz on Insectaries

As more wineries turn to sustainable farming practices, many are employing insectaries, rather than chemicals, to fight pests. 

“We’re growing plants that attract predatory insects in order to kill the “bad bugs” that can damage our vines, instead of spraying pesticides to eliminate those same bugs,” explains Chris Benziger, Brand Ambassador of Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma. Some of these “beneficial bug”-attracting plants include Russian Sage, Blackeyed Susan, and Purple Cone-flower. 

Benziger Family Vineyard | Photo Credit: Benziger.com

“This method also saves the biomass under our feet in the topsoil,” says Benziger, whose family helped pioneer sustainable farming in California. Pesticides kill the biomass and collapse soil, creating problems like erosion and shallow root systems. “Utilizing an insectary, rather than pesticides, allows that biomass to survive and thrive,” he says, “and it allows the grapevine roots to reach deep into the soil.”

Vigneron Dai Crisp of Lumos Wine in Philomath, Ore, entices ‘good’ bugs by ensuring a steady food source of pollen within the vineyard when bad bugs aren’t around to eat. 

“A strategy we have used is alternate row mowing of the alleyways between vine rows,” he says. “We mow the tall rows when we see flowers opening in the short vegetation rows. The scientific evidence suggests that the overall diversity of insects increases, and the number of total insects increases with this practice. Allowing a diversity of vegetation to grow outside the vineyard area also promotes better balance of insect diversity.”

Crisp and his family also helped establish a Fenders Blue Butterfly and Kincaid’s Lupine sanctuary adjacent to their vineyard: “When Fenders Blue butterflies and the host plant, Kincaid’s Lupine were first discovered on our land, we were very interested to work with researchers to enhance the habitat,” he says.” Unfortunately for us, this was also one of our best spots for a vineyard. We could not develop it because of these endangered insects and the host plants. We continued to help out with management until the county bought the ground as a park to protect it.”

In Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley, LIVE and B Corp certified Stoller Family Estate incorporates a Pollinator Pathway Project to help link and enhance habitat for some of Oregon’s endangered species and supporting plants. The estate contains nearly 57 acres of White Oak savanna, home to more than 50,000 native species bulbs. 

Stoller Family Estate | Photo Credit: stollerfamilyestate.com

Regularly scheduled flowering hedgerow plantings draw wild insects to the vineyard, and the valley. “This may mitigate endangered species from isolation and death by giving them a highway system that connects pollinating species through broader ranges of sustainable habitats,” says Corinne Gosnell, Stoller’s head of corporate gardens. 

Another part of the insectary program promotes ground-nesting bees. The winery provides Mason bee housing near all of the estate orchards, gardens, and large tracts of native and non-native “food oasis’ plants such as Western Hello, Globe Gilia, and Blue Flax. Each Mason bee “house” holds approximately 100 individual nesting tubes. Staff harvest, clean, and store cocoons annually, then re-stock the tubes, and release the Mason bee cocoons in spring. 

Additionally, strategically placed wood debris piles offer havens to ground dwelling insects, while tracts of bare soil adjacent natural and manmade waterways harbor ground bumblebees. “In 2020, our in-house Oregon Bee Atlas certified melittologist apprentice, Shani Hodge, began an ongoing survey of bees across the estate,” says Gosnell.  “Both rare and common bees are cataloged across the vineyards various host plant species and varieties. By observing plant host preferences, we can alter our seed and planting programs to enhance them to specific species requirements in the hopes of enticing populations back.”

Insectary capital outlays vary, but include clearing the land, possible lost grape-growing revenue from the cleared land, and annual maintenance. “We try to find areas that are underutilized, or that have open ground and flowering plants that will attract predatory insects,” says Benziger. He recommends fence lines, tractor avenues, culverts and areas around the pump house that also allow maintenance access, and water for irrigation. Once cleared, ;; estimates it takes about three to five years for the insectary to function fully, and six to seven years for it to achieve maturity and self-regulation.

Costs aside, insectaries provide some intangible benefits, too. “Ever since we created our first insectary 1993, it has changed the dynamics of the winery for the better,” Benziger concludes. “The insectaries have become personalities all their own, creating an environment that attracts not only insects, but other animals as well. An established insectary will be overflowing with wildlife and all the sounds that come with it. It is the ultimate Zen moment to stop in the middle, close your eyes and be enveloped by the nature that surrounds you.”