High corn prices are leading many growers to plant corn every year and to overuse pesticides and other bug-killing technology to maximize yields, researchers report. In many instances, pesticides are applied without scouting fields to see if they are needed, violating a bedrock principle of integrated pest management. The result is a biological diversity desert in many corn and soybean fields in the agricultural Midwest, and signs that the surviving insects are becoming resistant to several key bug-fighting tools now available to farmers.

University of Illinois crop sciences professor Michael Gray and his colleagues conducted a survey of corn and soybean pests in 47 counties in Illinois from late July to early August in 2011, and found densities of some key insect pests to be at zero or near zero in many counties.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in 22 years of doing this kind of research,” Gray said. “From an insect diversity perspective, it’s a biological desert in many of those fields.” Even western corn rootworm adults (which normally lay their eggs in cornfields in late summer) were difficult to find in many counties, he said.

In part, these low numbers are the result of environmental conditions – particularly wet springs – the past few years, Gray said. However, the widespread use of Bt-corn hybrids, which produce one or more insecticidal proteins, and the common practice of broadcasting mixes of insecticide and fungicide on corn and soybean fields also plays a role, he said.

And yet, when Gray asks farmers at growers’ meetings if they plan to use Bt corn again this year, a huge majority says yes.

“Many producers indicate that in order to have access to high yielding germplasm, the use of Bt hybrids is essential,” Gray said. “It is likely that many growers also will use a soil insecticide at planting, even though a Bt hybrid will be used.” This goes against decades of advice from researchers like Gray who argue for integrated pest management – the careful assessment of bug populations to determine what, if any, treatments are needed, and the use of changing tactics against adaptable pests such as the western corn rootworm and the European corn borer, either of which could devastate corn yields.

“We ask them to consider rotation with soybeans, to spray only when insects are present at levels that are likely to affect yield, and to not use Bt every season, or if they do, to get a different type of Bt corn, one that expresses a different Bt protein,” Gray said.

But instead of using integrated pest management, growers are relying on what he calls “insurance pest management,” throwing everything in their arsenal at the bugs to protect their crop, year after year.

“For corn in central Illinois, the average non-land costs – things like fertilizer, seed, crop insurance and machinery – come to about $513 an acre,” Gray said. Cash rent can add another $325 an acre for high-yield ground, he said. “So I think a lot of the growers see $20 to $25 dollars to apply a soil insecticide as pretty cheap insurance to protect that $850 investment.”

Landowners are raising rents in this competitive arena, some lenders encourage growers to do everything in their power to protect their yields, and federal incentives have lowered the cost of crop insurance for growers who use Bt corn, Gray said. So there are a lot of reasons for farmers to keep doing what they have been doing.

Most growers are not likely to be alarmed by the low number of bugs, but will instead see it as proof that their strategy works, Gray said. Other evidence, however, suggests that the short-term benefits will lead to unanticipated – and undesirable – consequences.