The Bug Cops

Protecting Colorado fruit crops from insect threats

You could call them insect cops. They're Colorado State University researchers who work with local growers to guard against creeping, crawling attacks on western Colorado fruit.

Western Colorado offers a cornucopia of juicy apples; tasty peaches; plump, premium grapes; and other fruit products nationally recognized for superb quality. But all too often, pesky insects and diseases cause problems. That's when professor of bioagricultural sciences Boris Kondratieff and his colleagues step in to protect western Colorado's fruit-growing industry.

For example, in 1985, a tourist carrying apples from eastern Colorado was stopped at a California highway agricultural inspection station only to learn that apple maggots had hitched a ride in the on-board fruit. Meanwhile, back in Colorado, some adult flies were trapped in Mesa County. Because the apple maggot is a major economic pest in many fruit-growing areas of the United States, it wasn't long before California authorities threatened to quarantine Colorado-grown apples.

That was bad news for western Colorado's multimillion-dollar apple industry. Kondratieff teamed up with Eugene Nelson, Cooperative Extension entomologist at Grand Junction, and graduate student Mary Kroening to see what they could do. The team proved the western Colorado apple industry not guilty by developing a trapping system for area orchards to detect apple maggots. They showed that apple maggots in western Colorado attacked native hawthorne shrubs and had not yet adapted to apples. The apples intercepted earlier in California had been grown in an eastern Colorado homeowner's backyard and were infested with maggots that had adapted to eastern, but not western Colorado apples. Nevertheless, today, western Colorado apple orchards constantly are monitored for apple maggots and other insect pests.

In the early ‘90s, Western Slope peach growers presented Colorado State's bug cops with another big case. Trees in some area peach orchards had turned yellow, lost branches, and suffered reduced production. Growers and researchers suspected Western X-disease, a viral-like disease caused by a microorganism carried and often spread by several species of leafhoppers that frequent peach orchards. Kondratieff assembled a team that included Harold Larsen, Cooperative Extension fruit disease specialist at the Orchard Mesa Research Center near Grand Junction, and graduate student Judy Welch. The case took an interesting twist when the team visited orchards to trap and identify leafhoppers. Limited presence of Western X-disease was confirmed in some orchards, but in those cases, they didn't find the leafhoppers. And in the places the leafhopper was present, they didn't find Western X-disease. The plot had thickened. The team was able to dig up the crucial clue in — of course — the soil.

The chemistry of many western soils keeps iron from being adequately absorbed by plant roots. This nutrient deficiency, known as chlorosis, often causes leaf yellowing and limb dieback like that found in the peach orchards. Unfortunately, Larsen says, treating affected trees with supplemental iron for this problem has been ineffective or only temporarily helpful. He continues to look for answers.

Western Colorado's expanding wine grape industry is getting attention from Colorado State's bug cops, too. Wine grapes are a new industry with production mainly in Mesa and Delta counties. There is a great potential market for high-mountain, sun-ripened grapes that produce exciting new wines. To ward off problems from pests, Kondratieff teamed with Rick Zimmerman, researcher at Rogers Mesa Research Center, and Rick Hamman, researcher at Orchard Mesa Research Center, to learn what insects were associated with Colorado grapes. The end result is a publication that lists insect and pest problems and makes control recommendations for grape producers.

"Are we really insect cops?" muses Kondratieff. "We investigate the problems and advise growers what to do about them. We try to protect growers and consumers from the ravages of nature. Our main weapons are good science, research, and hard work. That's what we're about."