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ARS Home » Office of International Research Engagement and Cooperation » OBCL Research Highlights » March 2023 » Classical Arthropod Biological Control has its Roots in a U.S./French Collaboration

Classical Arthropod Biological Control has its Roots in a U.S./French Collaboration that Dates Back to the 1870’s in Montpellier, France

By RFH. Sforza, European Biological Control Laboratory (EBCL)

Biological control, in general, has officially existed for almost 150 years and aimed at selecting biological control agents (BCAs) against pests, i.e. arthropods, weeds and plant diseases. Amongst predators, parasitoids, herbivores and pathogens, e.g. BCAs, a minimum of 75 families were investigated and studied for the benefit of biological control. They can be distributed as follows: 52 families in eight insect orders, 19 families for pathogens and nematodes, and four families for mites and several for spiders (Sforza 2021). This shows the huge diversity of organisms used in all types of biological control. All officially started in 1888 when Charles Valentine Riley, a British-born American entomologist, missioned his colleague Albert Koebele for surveying Australia for natural enemies against the cochineal, Icerya purchasi (Hem., Margarodidae), an invasive citrus pest in California. This is the true story that all biocontrollers know, and use for dating the origin of Importation (e.g. classical) Biological Control, but did you know that a few years before, CV Riley had a joint biocontrol project with French scientists? It was the time of the phylloxera crisis in the vineyards of Southern France. In 1868, Jules E. Planchon, a French botanist at the University of Montpellier, and his colleagues Mr Bazille and Mr. Sahut, discovered the phylloxera aphid, as a parasite of the vine roots. In 1871, CV Riley, a young 28-year-old federal entomologist from the USDA, came to Montpellier, a hotspot of agricultural research in Europe, and confirmed Planchon's statements, in particular that phylloxera was a species native to North America and American vines showed resistance to this new pest. We were therefore dealing with an invasive insect, probably introduced into France with infected U.S. rootstocks around 1858 (Pouget 1990). Thanks to his global vision of the biological world, Riley proposed in 1873, to ship to Montpellier, colonies of a predatory mite of the phylloxera, Tyroglyphus phyloxerae. All was done properly, and thus can be considered as "the very first international shipment of an auxiliary insect for biological control". Unfortunately, this attempt to introduce and release a BCA into France did not result in an efficient control. The game was postponed for this visionary scientist, as twelve years later, Riley decided to commission his colleague to search for natural enemies of the citrus cochineal in Australia. If you decide to visit Montpellier, you will find near the railway station, a little wooded square named "The Planchon square". Since 1894, a bronze statue of Planchon is installed at the entrance of the square and reminds the passer-by the story of the grapevine phylloxera, but also the one of importation biological control.


Pouget R. 1990 Histoire de la lutte contre le phylloxéra en France : 1868-1895, éd. INRA.

Sforza RFH 2021. The diversity of biological control agents. Chapter 1, pp-1-36. In: Biological control: Global Impacts, Challenges and Future Directions of Pest Management (Ed. P.G. Mason). CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne, 626p.

Sorensen, W., Smith, E.H., Smith, J., Weber, D.C. 2019. Charles Valentine Riley: Founder of modern entomology. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. 438 p.

Statue of Planchon
Bronze statue of Planchon in Montpellier, France. (Photo courtesy of RFH Sforza)

The European Biological Control Laboratory (EBCL) was established in 1991 near Montpellier, France. EBCL was created by the merger of the former European Parasite Laboratory, established in Paris in 1919, and the Biological Control of Weeds Laboratory in Rome. EBCL has a satellite laboratory in Thessaloniki, Greece. As the only USDA ARS-operated laboratory outside the United States, EBCL develops biological control technologies which can be used to suppress invading weeds and insect pests of Eurasian origin. EBCL researchers do this by searching for natural enemies (insects, mites, and pathogens) in their native habitat, determining their identity, testing their host specificity and potential impact in laboratory and field experiments, and shipping promising organisms to the U.S. for further testing as biological control agents. EBCL collaborates with scientists in many countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa to explore in regions of origin of the target weeds and insects.