A novel solution to cannabis pest

Phase 1 BioWorks trials:NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production Program

Working on the phase 1 BioWorks trials: Deana Huntsbarger, (foreground), assistant student technician and 2021 graduate of NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production Program, and Laurie Zuber, horticulture technologist with the College’s Commercial Cannabis Production program.

One of the fiercest opponents facing the cannabis industry is the rice root aphid (Rhopalosiphum rufiabdominalis). Their feeding on cannabis roots can affect plant growth, vigor and productivity. Further, winged adults can become tangled in the sticky trichomes of flowers, and their presence can significantly compromise the plant’s quality and value.

To date, few registered products will reliably control these culprits and the industry continues to experience challenges to find sustainable Integrated Pest Management (IPM) solutions for this pest.

One company may have found a novel solution but required third-party validation of efficacy and safety in order to make a commercial decision as to whether to move forward and register their product for root aphid control.

With offices in both Canada and the U.S., for 25 years BioWorks Inc. has helped customers in the horticulture and specialty agriculture markets successfully grow crops with biological control and plant nutrition products. They’ve looked to the Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) at Niagara College to conduct efficacy trials of its biorational, organic pesticide for control of root aphids on cannabis crops.

“Review of the data will allow us to make a decision as to the value our product can deliver to the industry,” says Michael Brownbridge, biological program manager at BioWorks. “The product must demonstrate high efficacy and low plant risk to be considered viable. These preliminary trials will provide sufficient information as to whether we wish to invest further in product evaluation and development.”

True to their name, these aphids colonize cannabis roots, making them inaccessible to soil predators as a biocontrol solution, and their cryptic nature is one of the reasons for the difficulty in finding suitable IPM tools

BioWorks’ research collaboration with Niagara College includes testing various targeted root/soil-treatments for control of the aphids. This is the first step in identifying effective methods to manage the pest and is a pre-requisite to delivering a customized and effective solution for the Canadian cannabis sector.

“This hands-on learning experience is a great way for us to share some of our experience with the students, and to help them learn some of the nuances associated with the successful implementation of biological control and IPM.”
~ Michael Brownbridge, biological program manager, BioWorks

In this course-based research project, students from NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production program work alongside experts in IPM research to conduct multi-week trials. “This hands-on learning experience is a great way for us to share some of our experience with the students, and to help them learn some of the nuances associated with the successful implementation of biological control and IPM,” explains Brownbridge. “The structure of the project was able to bring all parties together around a shared goal, and to use it not only as a means of generating sufficient data to make a commercial decision, but to help develop critical thinking skills in IPM and plant health management for our next generation of growers as well.”

BioWorks Is currently involved in phase 2 of the validation trials with AETIC, which are expected to wrap up this fall. Results of the trial will provide the necessary information to allow the company to make a go, no-go decision on further commercialization. The trial project is being funded by the Niagara College-led Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario).

Along with crucial benefits for the industry partner, these types of course-based applied research also afford advantages to students preparing for their career in the cannabis field.

As a student in NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production program, Deana Huntsbarger worked as an assistant student technician on the BioWorks trial. She had the opportunity to learn about research protocols, data collection, plant monitoring and report writing.

Since graduating in April 2021, she has been hired as a junior grower at a cannabis cultivation facility in British Columbia.

“My experience with the BioWorks project, as well as access via faculty to the latest cannabis research publications, gave me the skills and confidence to evaluate plant health issues at my facility and to connect with a leading researcher to provide testing via samples I collected and sent off.

“The ability of Niagara College to partner with cannabis industry enterprises to conduct trials and connecting students to real-world issues, is an aspect to this ground-breaking program that is singular in the cannabis education space,” adds Huntsbarger.


Niagara College’s AETIC team works with private and public sector partners to develop innovative solutions to address today’s challenges in agriculture, local and sustainable food production, plant growth, horticulture practices, greenhouse operations, aquaponics and environmental management.

For more information, visit Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Centre.