Biological vs. Chemical Pest Control

Pest control protects fruit.
Pest control protects fruit. | Source

All living things strive to survive, but unfortunately the needs of other creatures sometimes conflict with our needs. An example of this conflict is the struggle between pests and humans. Pests are creatures that injure or kill plants or domestic animals, transmit disease, cause economic damage or are a nuisance in some other way. They eat our food crops or ornamental plants, infect plants that are useful to us, make us sick by transmitting infectious organisms, infest our livestock and pets and destroy property. An effective form of pest control is essential if we're going to win the battle with pest organisms.

Many different chemicals are used to kill pests. These pesticides often work well, but since they're designed to kill living things they may cause serious problems in humans or pets. Pesticides contaminate the environment and the food that we eat and may enter our bodies when we're applying them to our plants or animals. They sometimes harm other organisms in addition to their target. Another problem with using chemicals to control pests is that a pest may become resistant to a pesticide.

Biological pest control involves the use of another living organism to kill a pest. No chemicals are needed, there is no environmental contamination with pesticides and the pests don’t become resistant to the control method. However, introducing a plant or animal to an area where it doesn’t normally occur can create new problems.

Fruit with blemishes is often safe to eat.
Fruit with blemishes is often safe to eat. | Source

Types of Biological Pest Control

There are three types of biological pest control. In classical biological control, natural predators, parasites or pathogens of a pest are imported into an area to protect a crop or livestock. A "pathogen" is an organism that causes disease. Importation is a useful strategy when the pest has been introduced from another region and has no predators in its new habitat.

In conservation biological control no new plants or animals are introduced to an area, but the environment is manipulated to favor the survival of local enemies of the pest. For example, a farmer or gardener may provide additional food sources or suitable habitats for a pest's enemies.

In augmentation biological control, plants and animals which control a particular pest and are already present in an area are increased in number by inoculation or inundation. Inoculation is the introduction of relatively few organisms. Inundation involves the introduction of a very large number of organisms.

Advantages of Biological Pest Control

Biological pest control has some distinct advantages compared to chemical pest control. Farmers and gardeners don’t have to worry about poisoning themselves, their families or their pets when they treat their crops or plants. There are no toxic chemicals to store and no concerns about children or animals discovering the stored pesticides. There are no pesticides to give off dangerous vapors, accumulate in the soil or collect in water. The food that's produced will be free of pesticides (or low in pesticides, since the food may have picked up the pesticides distributed by other people).

A cane toad, or Bufo marinus
A cane toad, or Bufo marinus | Source

Disadvantages of Biological Pest Control

Despite the appealing advantages of biological pest control there may be important disadvantages. Artificially increasing the population of a certain predator may have unforeseen consequences. In addition, an organism that has been introduced from another area to destroy a pest may become a pest itself, especially if it has no natural predators in its new habitat.

A famous example of this effect is the introduction of the cane toad into Australia. In 1935, cane toads were transported from Hawaii to North Queensland. The goal was for the toads to catch and eat the beetles that were attacking the sugar cane crops. Not only was this plan unsuccessful (the toads couldn't jump high enough to reach the beetles on the sugar cane stalks), but the cane toad has now become an invasive species. The toads have spread to new areas and have a thriving population. They feed on native animals and the toxin in their bodies often kills their potential predators.

Luckily, previous experiences have taught researchers how to better assess the likelihood that an introduced predator, parasite or pathogen will cause a problem. Nature's behavior can't be completely predicted, however, and scientists never know for certain what will happen when they introduce a plant or animal to an area.

Biological pest control often takes longer to work than chemical pest control and frequently reduces a pest population to a low level rather than eliminating it completely. These facts may be considered a disadvantage by some people. Once a predator population is established, however, biological pest control will operate on its own without the need for further human input (as long as the predator survives).

Pest control methods must be safe for livestock, such as these chianina oxen.
Pest control methods must be safe for livestock, such as these chianina oxen. | Source


Biopesticides are produced from or by living things and are considered to be safer for humans than chemical pesticides. There are three types of biopesticides - microbial pesticides, plant-incorporated protectants (or PIPs) and biochemical pesticides.

Microbial Pesticides

These pesticides are made from microorganisms, such as bacteria or fungi, which are used to infect and kill pests. Although the microbes are said to form a pesticide, their use is actually an example of biological pest control.

A popular microbial pesticide is the bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as Bt. There are different strains of Bt, each producing a different mix of proteins. Some of these proteins kill insect larvae, with different proteins killing different species of insects.

Plant-Incorporated Protectants, or PIPs

PIPs are chemicals made by plants that have been genetically altered in order to produce a particular pesticide. For example, the Bt genes that make pesticide proteins can be inserted into plants. The genes become active and the plants produce their own pesticide, which kills insects that try to eat the plant. The pesticide proteins don't hurt humans.

Ornamental plants are beautiful, unless they're being attacked by pests.
Ornamental plants are beautiful, unless they're being attacked by pests. | Source

Biochemical Pesticides

Biochemical pesticides are non-toxic chemicals made by living creatures. They are usually the only kind of pesticide that organic food producers are allowed to use.

A biochemical pesticide's job is to control a pest, but it may not kill the pest directly. Semiochemicals are chemicals released by living things that influence the behavior of other organisms. A pheromone is a semiochemical that affects a member of the same species as the organism that made the pheromone. Insect pheromones attract other insects, which may be insects of the opposite gender or insects of both genders, depending on the pheromone. Pheromones can be used by farmers to lure insects into a trap.

Pyrethrins are another type of biochemical pesticide. They are made in the seed cases of a type of chrysanthemum and kill insects by damaging their nervous systems. Unlike some chemical pesticides, pyrethrins quickly break down in the environment and are said to be non-residual chemicals. They have low toxicity to humans and other mammals but should still be treated with respect. It's important to realize that just because a chemical is natural doesn't automatically mean that it's completely safe for humans. Still, pyrethrins are considered to be some of the safest chemicals to use as pesticides. However, they are toxic to fish and bees.

A substance called piperonyl butoxide is often added to pyrethrin insecticides. Piperonyl butoxide has no ability to kill insects by itself. However, it makes the insecticidal ability of pyrethrins stronger by stopping an insect's body from breaking down the pyrethrins.

Organic Pest Control

Kitchen Ingredients as Pesticides

There are some common kitchen substances that can be used to get rid of garden pests. For example, a canola oil spray works as an insecticide yet is nontoxic to humans. It shouldn't be sprayed near water, however. Garlic repels birds and insects and also degrades quickly. Black pepper oil is used to repel mammals. Chili peppers are chopped and then soaked in water for a day to make an insecticide. Some people add an small amount of soapy water to the chili water to make a spray that will stick to plants. Try to use a soap or detergent that is safe for the environment if you do this. Be careful if you use chili peppers, since they can burn and irritate skin and mucous membranes. Although it may not be a common household product in some countries, neem seeds and the oil from the seeds can be used to create a natural pesticide that kills many insects.

Using Chemical Pesticides

Types of Chemical Pesticides

Chemical pesticides are synthetic substances that are created to kill or injure pests. They can be classified in several different ways. For example, pesticides may be categorized based on when they begin to work after they are applied to a pest. Contact pesticides kill a pest shortly after touching the surface of its body. Systemic pesticides are absorbed by plants or animals and must spread through the inside of their bodies to untreated areas before they can kill pests. The pesticides may travel through the whole body or just to one particular area in the body.

Pesticides may also be classified according to how they affect pests. Desiccants remove water from the bodies of plants or animals, for example, and defoliants cause plants to drop their leaves. Insect growth regulators kill insect larvae by interfering with the process in which juvenile insects molt and turn into adults. Although most pesticides kill the pests that they attack, not all of them do. Repellents simply repel pests, as their name implies. An example of this type of pesticide is DEET, a common substance in personal insect repellents. Sterilizing agents interfere with the ability of the pest to reproduce, but they don't kill the creature that they affect.

Additional ways to classify pesticides are by the type of organism that they are designed to kill, as the table below shows, or by their chemical structure.

Classifying Pesticides by Target Pest

Pesticide Type
Target Pest
nematodes (roundworms)
slugs and snails
acaricides (or miticides)
fleas, ticks and mites
Peeling fruit removes some types of pesticides but not every type.
Peeling fruit removes some types of pesticides but not every type. | Source

Chemical Pesticides and Human Health

Pesticides are potent chemicals designed to destroy pests. They may harm us, too. This harm is generally reduced because farmers often have to follow strict laws about pesticide use. These laws include rules about allowable pesticide levels on crops and about pesticide storage, transport and application. Despite all the regulations, however, we do ingest pesticides in our foods and drinks, inhale pesticides from the air that we breathe and absorb pesticides through our skin.

The agencies that regulate pesticides usually admit that chemical pesticide use does involve safety risks, but they say that these risks are acceptable considering our need to protect agricultural crops and feed people. Many individuals disagree with the idea that the risk is "acceptable", however. The agencies also claim that most people are exposed to only small amounts of pesticides in their daily lives. However, if a pesticide is very toxic a small amount can be dangerous.

The effects of a pesticide on the human body depend on several factors, including the nature of the pesticide, the amount of chemical involved, the length and frequency of exposure and the age of the person being exposed to the pesticide. Children are especially susceptible to the effects of chemicals because of their small size and the fact that their bodies and nervous systems are still developing.

Symptoms of acute pesticide poisoning develop immediately or shortly after exposure to a dangerous dose of a pesticide. The symptoms may be relatively minor, such as a headache, dizziness, nausea and diarrhea. More serious symptoms include vomiting, abdominal pain, a rapid pulse, lack of muscle coordination, mental confusion, inability to breathe, burns, loss of consciousness and even death.

Other possible effects of pesticide exposure may take longer to develop. It's hard to definitely prove that a pesticide is responsible for a human disease, but certain pesticides are suspected of causing nervous system damage and cancer.

Beautiful and flawless flowers are lovely to see, but the use of a pesticide to keep them that way needs to be considered very carefully.
Beautiful and flawless flowers are lovely to see, but the use of a pesticide to keep them that way needs to be considered very carefully. | Source

Do you use chemical pesticides?

  • No, never
  • Sometimes
  • Yes, whenever I'm dealing with a pest
See results without voting

Common Types of Insecticides and Their Dangers

Many pests are insects and so most pesticides are insecticides. Important types of insecticides, which are classified based on their chemical structure, are organophosphates, carbamates, organochlorines, pyrethroids and neonicotinoids.

  • Organophosphates

Organophosphates kill insects by interfering with the activity of their brains and nervous systems. Unfortunately, they can also affect the nervous systems of humans and other animals. They do this by altering a normal process involving acetylcholine, a common neurotransmitter. Neurotransmitters control the transmission of a nerve impulse from one nerve cell to the next. They are normally broken down or removed once they've done their job. Organophosphates interfere with the action of acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine.

  • Carbamates

Carbamates are also used as insecticides and work in a similar way to organophosphates. They break down quicker and are less dangerous to humans, however.

  • Organochlorines

The most famous organochlorine is DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). It has been banned in several countries for decades, except for very specialized use, but it is a very persistent pesticide. "Persistent" pesticides stay in the environment for a long time and don't break down. DDT is still found in soil and in the bodies of animals and humans. DDT thins the shells of bird eggs, causing the developing babies to die. It also disrupts our endocrine systems (which produce the hormones that we need) and is thought to damage genes and increase the risk of cancer.

  • Pyrethroids

Pyrethroids are synthetic chemicals derived from pyrethrins. Like pyrethrins, their use is increasing because they are considered to be less toxic than the other categories of insecticides.

  • Neonicotinoids

Neonicotinoids are derived from nicotine, a plant chemical. They interfere with a pathway that is common in the insect nervous system and are suspected of playing a role in honeybee colony collapse disorder.

Rhododendrons can be lovely even when not treated with pesticides.
Rhododendrons can be lovely even when not treated with pesticides. | Source

Integrated Pest Management

Due to the concerns about chemical pesticide safety, some communities are now using integrated pest management techniques to control pest problems. Integrated pest management, or IPM, involves the use of multiple techniques to solve a pest problem as safely as possible. These techniques include physical or mechanical methods, such as picking pests off plants, creating barriers to block pests from entering an area, removing clutter and changing the conditions that attract pests. They also include choosing an appropriate garden or field design. Companion plants that protect a desired crop may be grown beside the crop, for example. The soil composition or growing conditions may be changed to discourage pests. Biological pest control methods and biopesticide applications are also used in IPM. Even chemical pesticides are used, if they are absolutely necessary.

IPM Basics

The good news is that public pressure and human health concerns are stimulating some communities and individuals to use safer methods to manage pests. These methods include physical control, biological control, the use of biopesticides, and, if necessary, the use of safer chemical pesticides. Some local governments have even stopped using pesticides on ornamental plants and lawns for purely cosmetic reasons. In addition, some people are now willing to accept fruit that hasn't been treated with chemical pesticides and looks less than perfect, provided it's safe to eat.

© 2012 Linda Crampton

More by this Author

Comments 23 comments

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit and the great comment, breathing. Like you, I always prefer natural products whenever I can use them.

breathing profile image

breathing 11 months ago from Bangladesh

There are always possibilities of diseases with chemicals. That's why I prefer natural pesticides over the chemical ones. Yeah there are cases where you can get great results with the chemical pesticides but there are always chances of great destruction too! That's why if you are ever bound to use chemical pesticides don't do anything on your own. Try to take the suggestion from experts. If possible try to perform the whole process taking the expert along with you. After all it will not take you years to do so!

Overall a great and informative article about the different kinds of pesticides and their uses.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for both the comment and for voting, twinstimes2!

twinstimes2 profile image

twinstimes2 4 years ago from Ohio

Well done, Alicia. I learned quite a bit reading your hub. Both useful and interesting...and voted up!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, theraggededge. Thank you for the visit and the comment. It's good that we have some natural pesticides to choose from instead of having to rely on chemical ones!.

theraggededge profile image

theraggededge 4 years ago from Wales

Wow - so much information! I like the natural insecticides you suggest and have used one or two of them but didn't know about the others. Many thanks.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment, Karen! I'm lucky to have a garden, so I grow some fruits and vegetables there, without chemical control. A large part of the garden is used by my dogs, though, so I still have to buy a lot of produce. I try to buy organic food whenever I can.

KarenCreftor profile image

KarenCreftor 4 years ago from Kent, UK

Very useful and well researched hub, thanks Alicia!

I don't have a garden myself but I do try to buy organic, mainly due to being highly sensitive to chemicals and heavy metals. It's good to know what goes on in our food production.

~Kaz x

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the visit and the comment, drbj. It is interesting - and a little scary - to think that substances that we eat have the power to kill insects!

drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

Fascinating information and thorough research, Alicia. But now thanks to your edifying description of chili peppers potential use as insecticide, I am swearing off chili peppers. Promise.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit and for commenting, teaches. I use natural remedies, too! They work in my garden.

teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

I am going with your natural remedy approach. It would be a better world for all of us without those harmful chemicals that have the potential to cause severe reactions. Thanks for posting.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the comment, chrissieklinger! I appreciate your visit.

chrissieklinger profile image

chrissieklinger 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

I might just try that chili pepper spray mixture. Loved reading this hub...thanks for all the information!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much for the votes and for sharing the hub, Peggy! It is scary to think about the pesticides in our bodies and their possible effects. It's certainly time for individuals and communities to think very carefully about what forms of pest control to use.

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

Hi Alicia,

It is a perennial problem for farmers of all types...commercial concerns as well as backyard gardeners. I am happy to see the movement towards using more natural pesticides and plants that can be grown together for best effect. The old saying..."we are what we eat"...includes the pesticides used! Excellent hub. Up votes and SHARING this.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Tom. I'm very glad that more people are thinking about safe ways to control pests, too. There are still a lot of potentially dangerous chemicals being used as pesticides, though. Thank you for the comment and the votes. I hope that you have a wonderful weekend as well!

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Danette. Yes, the web of life is very intricate and there is still so much to learn about how nature works. I agree with you - we may never be able to control the environment and the connections between living things! Thank you very much for the comment and the share.

kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 4 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi my friend, has always i love reading your hubs, it is so nice to hear that they are trying to find better ways and safer ways to manage pests in order to protect us,our pets and our food supply.

Vote up and more !!!

Have a awesome weekend my friend !

Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 4 years ago from Illinois

Hey Alicia, I have to agree with mwilliams66. I had a questions/comment about introducing a predator to control a pest (that it wasn't always a good idea) and you addressed that with the toads in Australia. When will we learn that we can't always (maybe never?) control the environment/chain of life.

There was a lot of info here to absorb and I'll have to come back to reread it but as always, I enjoyed your writing and I'm going to share it on Google+

mwilliams66 profile image

mwilliams66 4 years ago from Left Coast, USA

Thanks Alicia. I'm working up to it. I'm doing a lot of reading and commenting right now. I'm really enjoying that. I have found that your hubs are some of the most interesting.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, mwilliams66! I appreciate your comment. I'm looking forward to reading your hubs!

mwilliams66 profile image

mwilliams66 4 years ago from Left Coast, USA

As with all the hubs written by you that I have so far read, I found this to be a very interesting article.

All the questions that came to mind as I read, were answered.

Very thorough and useful.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article