Organic insect management at The Vineyard Golf Club

The golf course shares its insight and maintenance practices

Jeff Carlson, CGCS, superintendent
The Vineyard Golf Club, Edgartown, Mass.
Publication date: January 2008

The Vineyard Golf ClubThe Vineyard Golf Club, a private 18-hole Donald Steel-designed course, opened for play in May 2002. The golf course’s construction on Martha’s Vineyard was subject to agreements and conditions required primarily by The Martha’s Vineyard Commission, an authority established by the state to protect the land and waters on the island.

The course’s developers also worked with the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation to obtain additional approvals focusing on the agreements to protect the environment. One of the conditions of approval for the course was that it be managed organically. Organic is “derived from plant materials or biological organisms or mined from natural deposits.” Although the course was required to use organic maintenance practices, the club’s members have enthusiastically embraced the organic mandate even through times when playing conditions are not visually perfect.

Open communication

Communication between the golf course superintendent and membership is critical at an organic golf course. Golfers’ expectations seem to include a preference for “Augusta-like” or visually appealing playing conditions, regardless of the course’s budget, location or environmental restrictions. Communications with members at the Vineyard Golf Club include:

  • Publishing articles from the maintenance department within every club newsletter
  • Playing golf with members throughout the season
  • Hosting an annual open meeting each August
  • Initiating impromptu visits with members
  • Encouraging feedback
  • Seeking out concerned members

These communication efforts are very important when dealing with pests, any corresponding turfgrass damage, and the specific organic maintenance practices used on the golf course. During the fourth and fifth years of operation, the maintenance department dealt with grubs and predators that fed upon the grubs, including crows and skunks.

Treating the course organically

The Vineyard Golf ClubWe first noticed grub damage during the fall of 2004. We contacted the Entomology Department at the University of Massachusetts (UMASS) for assistance. We continued our only organic treatment using bacillus popilliae (Milky Spore) and repaired the damaged areas every morning before play.

This organic treatment was a time-consuming task that started in late August, occurred weekly until the middle of October, and accounted for more than 120 man-hours per week.

This work made a difference to our players and minimized their concerns. A smooth, tamped out and seeded portion of a tee, collar or fairway does not affect play and greatly reduces the visual shock of predator damage.

If the damage to the greens was excessive and in a high profile area we would sod the area immediately. The grubs rarely went after the new sod because grubs were fed below the sod’s root system. During the peak of disease damage, grubs had attacked significant portions of tees, fairways, and roughs. In an effort to quantify the extent of the damage, we measured the total areas of damage and compared that to the total of unaffected areas of the tees, fairways or rough. Less than 1% of the managed turf areas were damaged and yet it was clear that the overall turfgrass look was unacceptable.
The Vineyard Golf ClubDuring the height of grub damage each year, we had little or no damage to any of our greens. In some cases the damage would occur up to the edge of the green. This phenomenon may be related to the construction of the greens. Each green is lined with a plastic liner located between the greens mix and the sub soil.

During the winter of 2003, we had a severe cold spell, freezing the ground to a depth of two feet in the open areas. The frost’s severity was confirmed by the extensive irrigation breaks we had to repair the following spring. Since the total greens mix and stone above the liners total 18 inches, it is conceivable that the grubs simply froze to death. Liners might provide interesting control in areas of the country where the frost routinely goes two feet or deeper.

Member support

Keeping members informed of these pest issues and our organic approach helped to establish a better understanding of the situation. Their level of understanding and support was demonstrated when the grub foraging predators appeared. Members came forward and suggested that the club hire a retired local fisherman who specialized in skunk removal. Over the past three years, the fisherman removed skunks, crows, and racccoons from the course. He set dozens of traps baited with white bread, cheese crackers, and un-shelled peanuts. He displayed dead crow decoys in an effort to discourage their return. Our members are now active participants in the pest management program.

The beetles

Case-study-Environment-IPM-Vineyard-pic4With a little help from Mother Nature, we were able to begin managing our beetle problem. During peak beetle activity, a dozen or more Seagulls camped out on the fairways and devoured adult beetles by the hour. The seagulls then disappeared when the beetles began burrowing underground. It soon became evident that we’d need to take a more scientific approach to solving our beetle problem. In addition to trapping predators and using scare tactics, we attacked the food source for the Oriental Beetle Grub. As soon as we identified the grub and isolated the infected area, we initiated the nematode research and mating disruption programs on the course. Pat Vittum, Ph.D., from the University of Massuchusetts, identified the best system for organic control.

Vittum, along with Albrecht Koppenhofer, Ph.D., from Rutgers University, implemented the beetle mating disruption program on our course. In our geographic area, the beetles’ mating cycle occurs for three weeks in July. During year one, pheromone traps were scattered throughout the course to determine areas of intense grub activity.

Our staff would empty the traps and then count, bag, date, and freeze the captured beetles. After the areas of intense activity were located, a special scent was placed in the traps that were later positioned within one acre square plots. Beetle activity was monitored in the traps by counting the samples.

Mating disruption scents are placed throughout the course in pheromone traps to confuse the male beetles. That includes plants, twigs, and grass, all designed to appear as female beetles. The hope is that these exhausted males will not successfully mate. The research is ongoing and the results will be reported through UMASS and Rutgers.

Nematode applications

The Vineyard Golf ClubIn addition to the beetle mating disruption research, we chose a nematode (Hb2) and treated all 69 acres of managed turf during the summer of 2007. It is difficult to obtain enough nematodes to treat large turf areas for two reasons:

  • Because of the availability of effective insecticides, there is very little demand for beneficial nematodes. There is limited nematode production, especially in the quantities that golf courses demand.
  • It is difficult to transport live products.

Researchers are ahead of the manufacturers at this time, but hopefully that will change. In addition to the nematode Hb2, there is a bacterium named “buibui” that has done very well at eliminating the Oriental Beetle.

Nematode applications are similar to synthetic insecticide applications. For both to work effectively, it is important to understand the life cycle of the target and water at the proper time. Nematodes are live organisms that require refrigeration and have a storage limit of 30 days. Once the nematode is on site, an application should be made during a rainstorm and two weeks after the beetles have pupated to larvae (early August for us). This application is made after 90% of the rain has fallen (pre-wet is key) and watered in with the remaining 10%. We also have to consider the effect of soaking the turf in mid-August, our peak fungus disease time. Because we deal with live organisms that have finite life spans, organic management is a balancing act. Peak disease time often coincides with the optimum pesticide management application.

Managing insects

The organic insect management program has demonstrated four important aspects of our management program:

  • Member participation
  • Non-traditional turf management programs
  • Utilization of research
  • Measurable progress

The initial insect damage occurred 1-2 years earlier than expected. Members were supportive and helpful in the early stages. Members encouraged us to hire a local fisherman. His approach to controlling insect damage was unique and in your face, but mitigated damage in the early years. Our program has been the recipient of extensive research (on the golf course). Beneficial nematodes and bacterium has provided test sites for studies in the mating disruption of adult beetles. As a follow up, we acquired sufficient quantities of live nematodes to treat the entire area of managed turf this season. We also observed a drop-off in damage. That progress is very encouraging. It gives us hope that we have a program in place to address insect damage without the benefit of traditional synthetic pesticides. Learn more about The Vineyard Golf Club.