no. 5.556

Bacillus thuringiensis

by W.S. Cranshaw* (7/14)

  • Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a naturally occurring bacterial disease of insects. These bacteria are the active ingredient in some insecticides.
  • Bt insecticides are most commonly used against some leaf- and needle-feeding caterpillars. Recently, strains have been produced that affect certain fly larvae, such as mosquitoes, and larvae of leaf beetles.
  • Bt is considered safe to people and nontarget species, such as wildlife. Some formulations can be used on essentially all food crops.
  • Bt is used in agriculture as a liquid applied through overhead irrigation systems or in a granular form for control of European corn borer.

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is an insecticide with unusual properties that make it useful for pest control in certain situations. Bt is a naturally occurring bacterium common in soils throughout the world. Several strains can infect and kill insects. Because of this property, Bt has been developed for insect control. At present, Bt is the only "microbial insecticide" in widespread use.

Alfalfa webworms killed by Bacillus thuringiensis.
Figure 1: Alfalfa webworms killed by Bacillus thuringiensis.

The insecticidal activity of Bt was first discovered in 1911. However, it was not commercially available until the 1950s. In recent years, there has been tremendous renewed interest in Bt. Several new products have been developed, largely because of the safety associated with Bt-based insecticides.

Properties

Unlike typical nerve-poison insecticides, Bt acts by producing proteins (delta-endotoxin, the "toxic crystal") that reacts with the cells of the gut lining of susceptible insects. These Bt proteins paralyze the digestive system, and the infected insect stops feeding within hours. Bt-affected insects generally die from starvation, which can take several days.

Occasionally, the bacteria enter the insect's blood and reproduce within the insect. However, in most insects it is the reaction of the protein crystal that is lethal to the insect. Even dead bacteria containing the proteins are effective insecticides.

The most commonly used strain of Bt (kurstaki strain) will kill only leaf- and needle-feeding caterpillars. In the past decade, Bt strains have been developed that control certain types of fly larvae (israelensis strain, or Bti). These are widely used against larvae of mosquitoes, black flies and fungus gnats.

More recently, strains have been developed with activity against some leaf beetles, such as the Colorado potato beetle and elm leaf beetle (san diego strain, tenebrionis strain). Among the various Bt strains, insecticidal activity is specific. That is, Bt strains developed for mosquito larvae do not affect caterpillars. Development of Bt products is an active area and many manufacturers produce a variety of products. Effectiveness of the various formulations may differ.

Disadvantages

Bt is susceptible to degradation by sunlight. Most formulations persist on foliage less than a week following application. Some of the newer strains developed for leaf beetle control become ineffective in about 24 hours.

Manufacturers are experimenting with several techniques to increase its persistence. One involves inserting Bt toxic crystal genes into other species of bacteria that can better survive on leaf surfaces (e.g., the M-Trak formulation of san diego strain).

Bt-based products tend to have a shorter shelf life than other insecticides.

Unlike most insecticides, Bt insecticides do not have a broad spectrum of activity, so they do not kill beneficial insects.

Perhaps the major advantage is that Bt is essentially nontoxic to people, pets and wildlife.

The highly specific activity of Bt insecticides might limit their use on crops where problems with several pests occur, including nonsusceptible insects (aphids, grasshoppers, etc.). As strictly a stomach poison insecticide, Bt must be eaten to be effective, and application coverage must be thorough. This further limits its usefulness against pests that are susceptible to Bt but rarely have an opportunity to eat it in field use, such as codling moth or corn earworm that tunnel into plants. Additives (sticking or wetting agents) often are useful in a Bt application to improve performance, allowing it to cover and resist washing.

Since Bt does not kill rapidly, users may incorrectly assume that it is ineffective a day or two after treatment. This, however, is merely a perceptual problem, because Bt-affected insects eat little or nothing before they die.

Bt-based products tend to have a shorter shelf life than other insecticides. Manufacturers generally indicate reduced effectiveness after two to three years of storage. Liquid formulations are more perishable than dry formulations. Shelf life is greatest when storage conditions are cool, dry and out of direct sunlight.

Advantages

The specific activity of Bt generally is considered highly beneficial. Unlike most insecticides, Bt insecticides do not have a broad spectrum of activity, so they do not kill beneficial insects. This includes the natural enemies of insects (predators and parasites), as well as beneficial pollinators, such as honeybees. Therefore, Bt integrates well with other natural controls. For example, in Colorado, Bt to control corn borers in field corn has been stimulated by its ability to often avoid later spider mite problems. Mite outbreaks commonly result following destruction of their natural enemies by less selective treatments.

Perhaps the major advantage is that Bt is essentially nontoxic to people, pets and wildlife. This high margin of safety recommends its use on food crops or in other sensitive sites where pesticide use can cause adverse effects.

Insects Controlled by Bt

Kurstaki strain (Biobit, Dipel, MVP, Steward, Thuricide, etc.):

  • Vegetable insects
    • Cabbage worm (cabbage looper, imported cabbageworm, diamondback moth, etc.).
    • Tomato and tobacco hornworm.
  • Field and forage crop insects
    • European corn borer (granular formulations have given good control of first generation corn borers).
    • Alfalfa caterpillar, alfalfa webworm.
  • Fruit crop insects
    • Leafroller.
    • Achemon sphinx.
  • Tree and shrub insects
    • Tent caterpillar.
    • Fall webworm.
    • Leafroller.
    • Red-humped caterpillar.
    • Spiny elm caterpillar.
    • Western spruce budworm.
    • Pine budworm.
    • Pine butterfly.

Israelensis strains (Vectobac, Mosquito Dunks, Gnatrol, Bactimos, etc.)

  • Mosquito.
  • Black fly.
  • Fungus gnat.

San diego/tenebrionis strains (Trident, M-One, M-Trak, Foil, Novodor, etc.)

  • Colorado potato beetle.
  • Elm leaf beetle.
  • Cottonwood leaf beetle.

Table 1. Primary strains of Bacillus thuringiensis used in managing insects.

Bacillus thuringiensis strain
(Common name)
Susceptible insects
aizawi Many Lepidoptera larvae
kurstaki Many Lepidoptera larvae
israelensis Larvae of mosquitoes, black flies, fungus gnats
japonensis Larvae of scarab beetles (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae)
tenebrionis (san diego) Larvae of leaf beetles (Coleoptera: Chrysomeldiae)
CrylAb delta-endotoxin1 Many Lepidoptera larvae
Cry3Bb1 variant1 Corn rootworm larvae (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae)

1Only used in production of genetically modified crops

Application

The greatest use of Bt involves the kurstaki strain used as a spray to control caterpillars on vegetable crops. In addition, Bt is used in agriculture as a liquid applied through overhead irrigation systems or in a granular form for control of European corn borer. The treatments funnel down the corn whorl to where the feeding larvae occur.

Many formulations (but not all) are exempt from pesticide tolerance restrictions and may be used up to harvest on a wide variety of crops. This also makes Bt useful in applications where pesticide drift onto Gardens is likely to occur, such as treating trees and shrubs. The exceptional safety of Bt products also makes them useful where exposure to pesticides is likely during mixing and application.

To control mosquito larvae, formulations containing the israelensis strain are placed into the standing water of mosquito breeding sites. For these applications, Bt usually is formulated as granules or solid, slow-release rings or brickettes to increase persistence. Rates of use are determined by the size of the water body. Make applications shortly after insect eggs are expected to hatch, such as after flooding due to rain or irrigation. Bt persistence in water is longer than on sun-exposed leaf surfaces, but reapply if favorable mosquito breeding conditions last for several weeks. Although the israelensis strain is quite specific in its activity, some types of nonbiting midges, which serve as food for fish and wildlife, also are susceptible and may be affected.

Use of Bt (israelensis) for control of fungus gnat larvae involves drenching the soil. Bt applied for control of elm leaf beetle or Colorado potato beetle (san diego/tenebrionis strain) is sprayed onto leaves in a manner similar to the formulations used for caterpillars. Bt does not control shore flies, another common fly found in greenhouses.


1 Colorado State University Extension entomologist and professor, bioagricultural sciences and pest management. 11/99. Reviewed 2/09.

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