Controlling pests when cultivating cannabis is critically important. An Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan consists of various methods to reduce or prevent pest infestations or maintain populations at a level that is non-damaging.

What You Will Learn In This Guide: IPM Best Practices, Standard Operating Procedures, BCAs, and More

Learn the best practices of an effective IPM, details for specific standard operating procedures (SOP), what Biologic Control Agents (BCAs) are and the benefits of using them, and much more for in-depth pest-control information all cannabis cultivators need to know.

Table of Contents

IPM Goals and Best Practices

The goal of any IPM is to apply a combination of various pest control methods to reduce, prevent, or maintain non damaging levels of pest populations. A combination of pest control methods includes physical, mechanical, and biological controls. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) must be practiced throughout the entire growth stage, from seedling to harvest.

The SOPs of a successful IPM should include procedures for:

  1. Cleanliness
  2. Inspections
  3. Identification
  4. Record-keeping

1.1 Maintain a Clean Environment

Maintaining a clean and sanitary grow environment is essential due to the sensitive nature of cannabis plants. Cultivators must practice a culture of cleanliness, with all staff continually following safe practices. This may include the use of a foot bath or a mat with a mild bleach solution outside of every door where cannabis plants are growing. These bath mats must be maintained regularly, or they could make issues worse.

Staff might be required to wear specific facility-provided uniforms and shoes and to shower and/or change in a designated locker room area prior to the start of each shift. Some cultivators insist that specific company-provided shoes are never worn outside of a restricted grow area. An air hose might be used to blow themselves off in case any pesky hitchhikers are attached to their hair or clothing prior to entering a cannabis room. Maintaining a clean environment is critical in cannabis cultivation.

1.2 Perform Regular Crop Inspections

Daily, and weekly inspections are an important part of any IPM’s Standard Operating Procedures. Staff should be trained on signs of a potential pest infestation and how to inspect all plants, such as checking under the leaves for barnacles and scale insects or knowing what it means if leaves are turning a different color.

1.3 Quickly Identify Pest Populations

It is important to ensure that all cultivation staff has the knowledge and training to identify common cannabis insect pests such as whiteflies, aphids, thrips, and diseases like powdery mildew. Early detection and identification of cannabis pests and diseases are crucial to saving entire crops. A staff trained in IPM best practices can mitigate risks to control pests and prevent crop damage.

1.4 Keep Detailed Records

All inspections, identifications, and treatment methods must be recorded. Staff should be trained on all operating procedures as well as the proper record-keeping requirements to closely monitor any pest population outbreak. Detailed record-keeping is important for the immediate control of pests. Records should be kept of all inspections of new cannabis plants or plants entering the facility, as well as documentation of any pest populations, treatment methods, and results.

An effective Integrated Pest Management plan is a progression of steps starting with prevention, suppression, and then eradication.

Pest Management

An effective Integrated Pest Management plan is a progression of steps starting with prevention, suppression, and then eradication.

2.1 Prevention

Integrated Pest Management practices for prevention include maintaining a controlled environment and removing any pest habitats, setting traps, and scouting for pests. Maintaining sanitation, pruning, and proper spacing between plants are important pest prevention methods, as well as controlling staff access to cannabis-growing areas.

Cultivators should continually observe growing areas to make sure they are properly sealed. Owners and operators should evaluate the cost of prevention in relation to quality improvements and yield to determine their economic threshold.

2.2 Suppression

Cannabis pest suppression methods include cultural practices such as pruning, the use of biological controls and low-dose natural oils, and the immediate removal of diseased plants. Cultivators should use pest monitoring traps and never reuse grow media.

2.3 Eradication

The quick eradication of pests is essential to preserving cannabis crops and includes methods such as natural oils and increased use of approved biological controls.

Worker Protection Standard Applies to Cannabis Cultivators

Agricultural Worker Protection Standards established and enforced by the Environmental Protection Association, EPA, aim to reduce injuries and pesticide poisonings among pesticide handlers and agricultural workers. Workers that have the potential for pesticide exposure, including cannabis cultivators that use pesticides, must maintain a WPS program. This includes ensuring that all employees have the proper training and necessary personal protective equipment.

EPA’s WPS requires employers to provide pesticide safety training with materials required by the 2015 WPS to train all handlers and workers. All EPA-approved Worker Protection Standard Materials for training nationwide are available in various languages. EPA-registered and approved pesticides have been through extensive testing, and all active ingredients are required to be displayed on the label. Each label must expressly state the allowance of usage on plants or crops intended for human consumption.

3.1 WPS Fines and Penalties

It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure compliance with Worker Protection Standards, and penalties and fines exist for noncompliance. Private applicators, owners, and operators of agricultural establishments may incur a federal civil penalty of up to $2,750 for violating the requirements of the WPS. Commercial applicators, including owners and operators of pesticide handler establishments, can incur fines of up to $18,750 per violation of the WPS.

The use of synthetic pesticides may be considered when allowed by local and state authorities. The operator may choose to use synthetic pesticides if the use of organic and natural pesticides has not been adequate to control pests or diseases.

Biological Control Agents (BCAs) Reduce Pesticide Use

The use of Biological Control Agents (BCAs) are used effectively in cannabis cultivation to prevent introduced insects and weeds from damaging crops in an environmentally friendly way. BCAs promote an organic growing environment which is most desirable for cannabis as chemical pesticides can be detrimental to human health and the environment. The use of BCAs involves introducing predatory biological species that fight cannabis pests in a natural way.

Some commonly used BCAs for cannabis plants include certain mites, which have a bad reputation, but some of them, like the Phytoseiulus persimilis, can be an ally for cannabis growers by feeding on the red spider, its larvae, and eggs. Ladybugs voraciously devour mites and aphids; the key is getting them to stay on your plants. If you sprinkle water on your plants and release them at night, they are more likely to hang around to drink and eat. To learn more about the use of good bugs vs. bad bugs for cannabis growing, this article published in Cannabis Business Times explains more about the type of predatory bugs to use against particular insect infestations.

BCAs can reduce or eliminate the need for the use of chemical pesticides with the use of natural organisms. Using natural enemies for biological control of pest management provides many benefits, including sustainable and environmentally friendly pest control that can eliminate or reduce the need for chemical pesticides. Another benefit is maintaining the organic quality of the cannabis plant and flower to allow the most natural flavors and aromas to develop without pesticide influence, which also improves the reputation of a professional and responsible cannabis grower.

4.1 Types of Biological Control Agents

Three types of biological control agents include classical, augmentative, and conservation.

  1. Classical biological control – involves the introduction of one or a group of species that are natural enemies of a foreign origin into an environment to control pests that may also be of a foreign origin, also called invasive, introduced, or exotic.
  2. Augmentative biological control – often practiced in nurseries, greenhouses, and some vegetable and fruit fields, augmentative biological control involves the release of BCAs into an environment where natural enemies are not present. The goal is to increase a population of natural enemies to control a pest population. These BCAs are purchased from suppliers and released en masse into an environment or infested area.
  3. Conservation biological control – this involves using various approaches and methods to manipulate a habitat that increases the population and effectiveness of natural enemies. Areas with diverse plant and animal communities also have greater diversity of natural enemies and lower populations of pests.

BCAs used as natural enemies for mites and insects typically fall into four different categories based on how they utilize their hosts or prey:

  • Predators – organisms that feed on targeted pests such as predatory mites, lady beetles, green lacewings, and others.
  • Parasites – microorganisms that feed, live, and lay eggs in or on a host without killing it.
  • Parasitoids – perform the same as parasites but end up killing the host. Examples include parasitic wasps or tachinid flies.
  • Pathogens – include microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and nematodes that cause disease in pests. Pathogens are called entomopathogenic when used against mites and insects.

4.2 Plan a Proactive BCA Strategy

BCAs must be part of a proactive strategy prior to or at the very first sign of the presence of insect or mite pests to achieve a stable microbial community. The use of BCAs provides an effective pest control solution to kill or prevent insect and mite pest populations on cannabis crops. BCAs help to prevent a buildup of pest populations and reduce the need for the use of pesticides. The use of pesticides on cannabis plants is strictly regulated in most states.

Layering the use of BCAs provides the greatest impact on protecting crops at various growth stages. This is especially helpful for indoor cultivations where rescue treatment options are limited, and it is important to plan and execute the use of BCAs over the entire crop cycle.

Before using pesticides, operators should consider the use of BCAs as well as products listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) to prevent and control diseases and pests. Cultivators may consider using a combination of natural oils and OMRI and EPA-registered products. Pesticides approved for use in many states expressly allow the use on plants intended for human consumption and are noted as safe for use on tobacco.

Cannabis crops should be inspected, and release rates of BCAs should be adjusted based on the identified insect and mite population and observed expansion.

Prior to using any prevention, suppression, or eradication method, facility operators must consider the following:

  • Status of any infestation
  • The size, density, and location of infestation
  • The potential to spread
  • The lifecycle stage of the crop
  • Environmental impacts
  • Regulatory requirements
  • Perception of the public
  • Previous results of pest control methods

It is equally important to maintain the proper nutrient levels and general crop health to avoid additional stressors that make plants more susceptible to mites and insects.

Facility and Air Handling Considerations

Maintaining a clean and sterile environment, including a sealed structure as well as the type of air handling unit, are also important considerations. Strict ventilation control and monitoring include considerations that mitigate pests and disease and provide odor control. Air handling intake points of cannabis growing facilities should be equipped with the appropriate screens and filters and HEPA filters with the capability to capture a minimum of 99.95% of particulates.

All operating staff should practice facility maintenance, including sealing all door frames, window frames, drains, cracks, and floor joints. All weeds and pest habitats surrounding the facility should be removed with appropriate baits and traps maintained on a regular basis.

Pest Management Companies

Some commercial cannabis growers choose to contract the services of third-party pest management companies that practice environmentally friendly services, including setting traps, regular inspections, and spraying the exterior of the building for preventive maintenance with organically approved products.

Commercial cannabis cultivators have a lot on the line and must make Integrated Pest Management a part of their overall operational goals. Implementing a successful IPM plan involves proactive planning and ongoing operational procedures to prevent, suppress, and eradicate harmful cannabis pests.

Keep your crop healthy and free from pests and disease, and always start your grow with high-quality cannabis seeds. The key to quality cannabis plants is to start with quality cannabis seeds, available in bulk from Mosca Seeds, a leading cannabis seed breeder with more than 15 years of experience in cannabis genetics and winner of several cannabis cups worldwide.