Native insects that prey upon crop pests are an overlooked resource. Although vast numbers of such beneficial insects are at work on farms across the world, they are eclipsed in farmer education by a smaller diversity of pest species. Yet, as a large body of research now demonstrates, farms as diverse as peanut-cotton operations in Georgia and forage producers in Oklahoma benefit from natural pest control.
The Conservation Biological Control Short Course synthesized that body of research and offered realistic solutions for enhancing beneficial insect populations on farms. This project, the outgrowth of a six-year research initiative conducted by the Xerces Society and university research partners, presented conservation biological control as an easy-to-adopt framework for multiple crop systems. Specific course topics included beneficial insect biology, designing habitat for beneficial insects, pesticide risk mitigation, securing financial support through USDA programs, and real-world case studies.
During the project, we collaborated with IPM specialists, university researchers, state and county extension personnel, NRCS conservation planners, Soil and Water Conservation District technicians, staff from state departments of agriculture, crop consultants, farmer organizations, and sustainable agriculture organizations to offer a short course in each state of the Southern SARE region. We partnered with local farmers, research stations, and agricultural organizations to get course participants out on farms whenever possible to demonstrate the concepts we taught. Qualitative and quantitative post-course feedback received from participants was incorporated on an ongoing basis.
We conducted the Conservation Biological Control Short Course in all 13 Southern SARE states, reaching 615 farm professionals and other attendees. With increased knowledge of conservation biological control practices, course participants are improving the skills and capacity of farmers, and assisting them in implementing conservation biological control management practices and on-farm habitat.
During this project, we delivered a total of 19 Conservation Biological Control Short Courses in all Southern SARE states, including 6 courses in three states using leveraged funds. These courses provided training for 615 participants, exceeding our goal of 390 short course attendees.
Our objective was to build the capacity of farm professionals to directly support their farmer-clients in adopting conservation biological control, and work with these farmer-clients to ultimately manage or restore habitat for beneficial insects. Follow-up surveys showed that short course attendees went on to advise 1,151 farms on conservation biocontrol practices, resulting in the creation of 2,801 acres of habitat (insectary strips, hedgerows, cover crops, etc.) for beneficial insects and farm management practices to protect beneficial insects on 6,350 acres. This on-farm habitat also benefits other wildlife, including pollinators and birds such as the bobwhite quail, and contributes to land stewardship by reducing soil erosion and protecting water quality.
Wild predator and parasitoid insects play a central role in terrestrial ecosystems and in the past were the primary means of pest control on farms. With the advent of chemical insecticides, however, the contribution of beneficial insects has largely been overlooked. Insecticides alone have not solved the problem of crop pests. Despite ongoing insecticide use, both the absolute value and the overall proportion of crop losses due to pests in the U.S. have increased.
It is widely recognized that pest control provided by beneficial insects remains significant. In one of the first economic studies of its kind, scientists at Cornell University found that the value of native beneficial insects for crop pest control in the U.S. is estimated to be at least $4.5 billion annually.
While native beneficial insects contribute enormously to agriculture, insecticide use and loss of habitat has led to declining beneficial insect numbers on farms. To investigate the possibility of reversing this trend and achieving economically meaningful levels of pest control, the Xerces Society partnered with UC Berkeley on a six-year study of beneficial insect habitat management practices. Investigators examined changes in pest and beneficial insect populations on farms where specific conservation practices were adopted versus farms that did not provide habitat and found that the restoration of native habitat supported significantly more beneficial insects and harbored fewer pests than weedy, highly disturbed field edges.
To ensure that these findings had broad nationwide applicability, we spent several years compiling additional findings and comparing notes with key biological control researchers and Extension specialists, including Dr. Glynn Tillman at USDA-ARS in Georgia and Debbie Roos at North Carolina State University.
The concept of providing habitat for native insects that attack pests is referred to as conservation biological control. Conservation biological control increases numbers of wild beneficial insects by providing the habitat they need to thrive. Because farms are often subject to farm practices like pesticide use, tillage, and mowing of field borders that affect habitat for beneficial insects, they don’t have enough alternative food sources and shelter to support large numbers of beneficial insects. For example, many insect predators and parasitoids feed on wildflower pollen and nectar when prey are scarce or simply as an alternative food source.
To address this need for habitat, researchers working across regions and crop systems have independently identified simple engineered habitats and management practices that consistently enhance natural pest control. These strategies include the establishment of native plant field borders, flowering hedgerows, in-field insectary strips, and beetle banks; cover cropping; conservation tillage; and pesticide risk mitigation.
Conservation biological control offers multiple, high value benefits that align with other sustainable agriculture priorities, such as reducing the need for insecticides, contributing to soil and water protection, and supporting other wildlife, such as pollinators and songbirds. Although these benefits are widely recognized, conservation biological control has historically been limited by a lack of practical information on implementation. This project addressed that barrier by providing training to agricultural service providers in all Southern states.
This short course was modeled upon a previous, highly successful SARE PDP project conducted by the Xerces Society for Southern SARE (the “Pollinator Conservation Short Course”). Based upon numerous participant requests from that earlier project, we developed this complementary program to train agricultural professionals on how to conserve predator and parasitoid insects.
This full-day training is made up of modules on:
- Introduction to ecological pest control
- Beneficial insect biology and identification
- Farm practices and pesticide risk mitigation
- Assessing baseline farm conditions for beneficial insects
- Designing and restoring habitat for beneficial insects
- Accessing technical and financial resources through USDA conservation programs
Our teaching format consisted of a multimedia lecture and is supported by a participant toolkit that includes farm and habitat management guidelines, insect identification guides, and relevant Extension, NRCS, and Xerces Society publications. Some of those publications include the national NRCS handbook Beneficial Insect Habitat Planning, a guide to pesticide risk mitigation, the book Farming with Native Beneficial Insects, and the guidebook Habitat Planning for Beneficial Insects.
Course publications and lecture modules were developed in consultation with scientific advisors at land grant universities across the U.S. and are based upon the latest peer-reviewed research. The curriculum was reviewed for practicality and clarity by farm-audiences (in a shortened form) at various conferences, and that initial feedback was incorporated into the final content.
This standard curriculum was supplemented by presentations from experts based in each state. These included academic researchers, NRCS technical staff, Extension educators, IPM specialists, and others. Since many of these speakers regularly work in the field and provide guidance to landowners on conducting conservation biological control related research, they were able to share practical information with course participants to help them envision how conservation practices that support beneficial insects would work on their farms.
Through this very successful training model, participant knowledge was developed from basic concepts (e.g. learning common groups of beneficial insects) to an advanced understanding of how to incorporate beneficial insects into whole farm planning (e.g. how to design insectary plantings, create beetle banks, and reduce pesticide impacts on beneficials).
Wherever possible, courses included an outdoor field component to conduct a beneficial insect habitat assessment using our Beneficial Insect Habitat Assessment Guide. Using this tool, our instructors lead guided field tours at course locations where participants quantified and scored the relative habitat value of different landscape features. Participants developed first-hand experience identifying gaps in habitat resources (e.g. lack of continuous nectar sources) and recognizing priorities for conservation planning (e.g. adoption of conservation tillage). We have found that this exercise gives course participants greater confidence in their ability to quickly evaluate baseline farm conditions for beneficial insects even when their knowledge of the insects themselves was limited.
In 2017, we also developed a series of three scouting guides to help short course participants gain hands-on skills in scouting for beneficial insects on the farm (see Information Products). The guides cover three topics related to beneficial insects for natural pest control—flower scouting, foliage scouting, and soil scouting. They are designed to help agricultural service providers and farmers assess the presence of predatory organisms where they hunt or rest—in soils, on vegetation, or on flowers. During the field portion of the short courses, participants had an opportunity to practice using the recommended scouting methods and gain valuable information on scouting for beneficial insects with an expert present.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
Learn about the role of beneficial insects in pest management and the research that supports conservation biological control
In this lecture module, course participants are introduced to the importance of ecological pest control through the conservation of beneficial insects. We provide an overview of the most current scientific research on the economic value of beneficial insects as well as the importance of creating habitat for these insects. The module also provides a broad overview of biological control as well as the basic needs of beneficial insects.
Course participants came away with a greater knowledge and appreciation for the role that beneficial insects can play in pest management. Of the attendees who completed the day-of-course evaluations, 89% (307 of 346) of participants reported an increase in knowledge of the concept of conservation biological control, in comparison to other pest management practices.
Become familiar with the diversity of insect predators and parasitoids that may be found in the farming landscape and learn how to distinguish the common beneficial insect groups from other insects
In this lecture module, course participants are introduced to the wide diversity of predatory and parasitoid insects through a combination of lecture and visual tools (photos, specimens, etc.) The most common beneficial insect groups found across the region are highlighted, and details on identification, insect life cycles, and habitat needs are provided. Course participants are also directed to additional print and online resources that can help familiarize them with these beneficial insect groups and aid them in identification.
In the day-of-course evaluations, 86% of course participants (299 of 346) reported increased knowledge in the diversity of beneficial insects and their life cycles, and 84% (289 of 346) reported increased knowledge in how to distinguish beneficial insects from other insects.
Learn the impact that various farm practices (tillage, pest management measures, etc.) can have on the beneficial insect community and become familiar with mitigation measures that can reduce risks to these beneficial insects
In this lecture module, course participants become familiarized with how common farm practices may impact the beneficial insect community on a farm, and how not all farm practices are equal in supporting conservation biological control. Integrated pest management (IPM) is introduced as a pest management framework that can help balance the use of pesticides with beneficial insect conservation. Non-chemical and chemical pest management tools are addressed in their effectiveness for managing farm pests and also supporting beneficial insects.
Course participants gained a greater understanding of how farm practices may impact beneficial insects. From the day-of-course evaluations, 79% (275 of 346) of course participants reported increased knowledge of the farm practices that can support beneficial insects. Participants also gained an increased understanding of how to reduce risks to beneficial insects through farm practices. In the day-of-course evaluations, 86% of course participants (298 of 346) indicated increased knowledge of how to reduce risks to beneficial insects from pest management practices.
Provide course participants with the tools necessary to assess a farm or agricultural landscape on its ability to support beneficial insects for pest control and lead course participants through the Beneficial Insect Habitat Assessment Guide (HAG)
In this module, course participants are led through a learning exercise to develop first-hand experience in identifying gaps in beneficial insect habitat resources (e.g. lack of nesting sites) and recognizing priorities when doing their own conservation planning. Course participants are introduced to the Xerces Society’s Beneficial Insect Habitat Assessment Guide (HAG) tool. The HAG is then used to assess a case-study farm from the state or region. The module wraps up with a group discussion on the positive attributes of the farm as well as what could be improved to support beneficial insects on the farm.
Course participants gained important skills in assessing lands they work with for beneficial insect support. Of responding course participants, 86% (299 of 346) indicated increased knowledge of how to evaluate a site for its ability to support beneficial insects in the day-of-course evaluations.
Learn the different habitat opportunities for creating a farmscape that supports beneficial insects as well as the steps to create these habitat features
In this lecture module, course participants are familiarized with the diversity of habitat features that can be incorporated into a farm to support conservation biological control. Habitats include both permanent (perennial) and quick-growing (annual) planting options. This module also includes a discussion of farm planning for ideal placement of new habitat areas. Course participants walk through the process of habitat restoration, including several options for site preparation management. Finally, additional print and online resources are shared to help participants with their own habitat projects.
Course participants gained knowledge about farm habitat options for supporting beneficial insects and how these habitat features can be created. Of those responding to the day-of-course evaluations, 84% (290 of 346) of course participants indicated they had acquired knowledge on additional options for creating or enhancing beneficial insect habitat. Of responding course participants, 78% (269 of 346) indicated they learned more about how to restore or enhance habitat for supporting beneficial insects.
Familiarize course participants with the technical expertise and funding available to support beneficial insect conservation
In this lecture module, course participants are familiarized with the financial support options available through the USDA to create on-farm habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. This includes an overview of Farm Bill conservation programs and options to obtain technical and financial support for habitat creation. An invited NRCS guest speaker who is familiar with that state’s insect conservation programs typically presents this module.
A majority of course participants acquired new knowledge on the use of the USDA Farm Bill for beneficial insect conservation on farms. Of the course participants responding to the day-of-course evaluations, 62% (214 of 346) reported an increased knowledge in using Farm Bill programs to enhance beneficial insect habitat.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We conducted 19 short courses in the Southern SARE region that were attended by a total of 615 participants, including 383 agricultural support staff and 39 farmers. These courses included 13 SARE-funded courses and 6 additional short courses funded by other sources. The primary audiences at all of these events were staff from the NRCS and soil and water conservation districts as well as farmers, entomologists/researchers, graduate students, and master gardeners.
Day-of-Course Evaluation Results
At the end of each short course, we administered evaluations to help us better understand what knowledge participants brought to the course and what they took away. Evaluations also asked participants what actions they intended to take after the course. Of the 615 short course attendees, 56% (346 of 615) completed the day-of-course evaluations.
Of the 229 agricultural support staff who responded to the day-of-course evaluation, 88% (202 of 229) said that they planned to use course information to advise farmers about farm management practices that support beneficial insects. Among those reporting, 72% (165 of 229) said that they would incorporate beneficial insect habitat enhancement into existing trainings on federal conservation programs. In total, these agricultural support staff estimated that they interact with 27,426 farmers annually.
While the short course specifically targeted agricultural support staff, a number of farmers and other land managers attended each event. Among the farmers and land managers that completed the day-of-course evaluation, 92% (36 of 39) said that attending the short course changed how they would support beneficial insects on their land. Collectively, this group reported that they manage approximately 11,103 acres of land.
Below is a sample of feedback we received from short course participants in 2018:
Great, informative workshop! Thought it was very interesting! – Agricultural support staff participant, Bishopville, SC course (June 2018)
It was wonderful and I am full of info to digest. – Course participant, Greensboro, NC course (August 2018)
This was a great short course for me! This provided the resources and material needed and (what I) came for. – Ag support staff, Hopkinsville, KY Course (August 2018)
Thank you for a great day–thank you for lunch–thank you for opening my mind so fully. – Course participant, Hopkinsville, KY course (August 2018)
Very informative, highly beneficial. Great knowledge and extremely factual. – Ag support staff participant, Americus, GA course (October 2018)
Instructor was excellent in explaining the concepts. – Farmer, Coffeeville, MS course (November 2018)
One of the short courses held in the summer of 2018 received media coverage in the South Carolina Index-Journal (http://www.indexjournal.com/lakelands_connector/southern-sare-sponsors-sc-farming-with-beneficial-insects-short-course/article_0d9394be-0cfa-5840-a36a-6ac80931ad37.html). The short course was held in Greenwood, South Carolina, at the Greenwood County Veterans Center and included a field visit to Metts Organix Farms. Participants from the Aiken Soil and Water District also wrote an article about the short course on their website (see https://www.aikensoilandwater.com/news/farming-with-beneficial-insects-workshop).
Follow-up Survey Results
In February and August 2018, we distributed follow-up surveys to gauge how past participants were using the information from the short course. We surveyed 474 people who attended one of 14 Southern SARE Conservation Biological Control Short Courses in 2017 and 2018, and we received 22 responses, for a 5% response rate.
In the one-year follow-up survey, 100% of respondents (22 of 22) reported that the knowledge they gained from the training was useful to their work. Survey results indicated that our train-the-trainer approach led to expanded beneficial insect conservation efforts, improved habitat assessment skills, the installation of additional habitat, changed land management practices on the ground (reducing the use of pesticides, tillage, and mowing), and enrollment in USDA conservation programs.
Of the seven agricultural support staff responding to the follow-up survey, 88% (6 of 7) reported taking targeted action(s) to educate/advise farmers on beneficial insects. Because of the limited number of survey responses we received, the verifiable data regarding the application of course information are very conservative. However, the high percentage of agricultural support staff who implemented the course information as well the as the high percentage of agricultural support staff who indicated an intention to use the course information to advise farmers in the day-of-course evaluations suggests that our impact may be much more far reaching.
Agricultural support staff reported using the information in a number of ways, including: assisted farmers, clients, or land managers in implementing beneficial insect conservation practices (6 of 7, 88%); advised on incorporating beneficial insect conservation measures into how farms or land is managed (5 of 7, 71%); made specific recommendations on farm management practices for beneficial insect conservation (5 of 7, 71%), and encouraged or assisted with enrollment in NRCS conservation programs for beneficial insects (5 of 7, 71%).
Agricultural support staff reported that they advised 1,151 farms, totaling 55,900 acres, on conservation biocontrol practices. On these farms, they advised on the creation of 2,801 acres of habitat (insectary strips, hedgerows, cover crops, etc.) for beneficial insects, and helped change farm management practices to protect beneficial insects on 6,350 acres. Agricultural support staff also reported that 17 of the farms they worked with enrolled in NRCS conservation programs for beneficial insects.
The two farmers and landowners who responded to the survey indicated that they had used short course information in the following ways: provided additional habitat resources for beneficial insects, such as wildflower plants, flowering cover crops, etc. (2 of 2, 100%); incorporated beneficial insect conservation measures into how their farm or land is managed (2 of 2, 100%); considered pesticide impacts on beneficial insects in pest management decisions (2 of 2, 100%); and enrolled in NRCS programs for beneficial insects (1 of 2, 50%). They reported changing their pest management practices to conserve beneficial insects on 49 acres of cropland, altering their other farming practices on 1 acres to support beneficial insects, and creating 10 acres of beneficial insect habitat. These respondents grow many different row crops, fruit trees, blueberries, and pine trees.
In addition to agricultural service providers and farmers, our survey included responses from 13 other attendees who did not identify themselves as either agricultural service providers or farmers/landowners. These participants included beekeepers, biologists, nursery managers, government employees (USDA ARS and FSA), and graduate students. While they may not have been our target audience, they too incorporated and implemented the knowledge gained from the course in multiple ways. For example, these respondents reported to have created 11.5 acres of beneficial insect habitat and changed their pest management practices to conserve beneficial insects on 12.5 acres of land. They also altered their farming/gardening/land management practices on 28.5 acres to support beneficial insects.
In reviewing the results of the follow-up survey and reflecting on our experiences in delivering these courses, we see a strong and growing interest for information on how to support beneficial insects of all kinds in cropping systems across the region. However, in our one-year follow-up survey, course participants identified barriers to the increased adoption of conservation biological control, including concerns that habitat may provide a haven for pests or weeds, time constraints with creating and managing habitat, and unfamiliarity with how to plant proper habitat for these insects. Another barrier mentioned was public perception and getting partners to support conservation biological control as a viable management tool. Participants also cited the need for additional resources about specific crops and associated beneficial insects (for example, crop-specific information on habitat options and beneficial insect identification), additional trainings to help promote this pest management strategy, and the creation of demonstration sites on parks and other public lands with high visitation/visibility.
Lastly, many course participants expressed the value of better understanding the roles farming can play to support biodiversity, whether for conservation biological control (this training course) or pollination services (our previous pollinator short course series).