This short course model builds 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 consists 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 has been incorporated into the final content.
This standard curriculum is supplemented by presentations from experts based in each state. These include 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 are able to share practical information with course participants that helps them envision how conservation practices that support beneficial insects will work on their farms.
Through this very successful training model, participant knowledge is 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 include 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 quantify and score the relative habitat value of different landscape features. Participants develop first-hand experience identifying gaps in habitat resources (e.g. lack of egg-laying sites) 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 is 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. 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 are provided an opportunity to practice using the recommended scouting methods and gain valuable information on scouting for beneficial insects while an expert is available.
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, 90% (189 of 209) 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, 85% of course participants (177 of 209) reported increased knowledge in the diversity of beneficial insects and their life cycles, and 81% (169 of 209) 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% (166 of 209) 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, 85% of course participants (178 of 209) 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, 84% (176 of 209) 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, 81% (170 of 209) of course participants indicated they had acquired knowledge on additional options for creating or enhancing beneficial insect habitat. Of responding course participants, 75% (157 of 209) 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, 59% (123 of 209) reported an increased knowledge in using Farm Bill programs to enhance beneficial insect habitat.
Educational & Outreach Activities
To date, we have conducted eight short courses in the Southern SARE region that were attended by a total of 279 participants, including 210 agricultural support staff (Extension, NRCS, and other/unspecified) and 20 farmers. The primary audiences at all of these events were staff from the NRCS and soil and water conservation districts as well as farmers.
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 279 short course attendees, 75% (209 of 279) completed the day-of-course evaluations.
Of the 153 agricultural support staff who responded to the day-of-course evaluation, 88% (135 of 153) said that they plan to use course information to advise farmers about farm management practices that support beneficial insects. Among those reporting, 72% (110 of 153) said 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 21,376 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, 95% (19 of 20) said that attending the short course changed how they would support beneficial insects on their land. Collectively, this group reported that they manage approximately 1,413 acres of land.
Follow-up Survey Results
In February 2018, we distributed a one-year follow-up survey to gauge how past participants were using the information from the short course. We surveyed 99 people who attended a short course in 2017, in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, or Virginia, and we received eight responses, for an 8% response rate. We are currently coordinating with our partners at the Tennessee NRCS to distribute a follow-up survey to attendees of the four Tennessee short courses held in 2017.
In the one-year follow-up survey, 100% of respondents (8 of 8) reported that the knowledge they gained from the training was useful to their work. Of the four agricultural support staff responding to the follow-up survey, 75% (3 of 4) reported taking targeted action(s) to educate/advise farmers on beneficial insects. These 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 (3 of 4, 75%); advised on incorporating beneficial insect conservation measures into how farms or land is managed (2 of 4, 50%); and made specific recommendations on farm management practices for beneficial insect conservation (2 of 4, 50%).
One farmer responded to the survey and indicated that he or she had used information from the short course to incorporate beneficial insect conservation measures into farm management, to consider pesticide impacts on beneficial insects in pest management decisions, and to provide additional habitat resources for beneficial insects such as wildflower plants and flowering cover crops.
The survey respondents also reported on the direct actions that they have taken as a result of attending a short course. Agricultural support staff reported that they advised 22 farms, totaling 2,500 acres, on conservation biocontrol practices. On these farms, they advised on the creation of 1,520 acres of habitat (insectary strips, hedgerows, cover crops, etc.) for beneficial insects, and helped change farm management practices to protect beneficial insects on 1,800 acres. Agricultural support staff also reported that two of the farms they worked with enrolled in NRCS conservation programs for beneficial insects.
The farmer who responded to the follow-up survey reported to have changed pesticide use practices to protect beneficial insects on 49 acres and changed farm management practices to conserve beneficial insects on one acre of cropland.
In addition to agricultural service providers and farmers, our survey included responses from three other attendees who did not identify themselves as either agricultural service providers or farmers/landowners. These participants were beekeepers and biologists. While they may not have been our target audience, they too incorporated and implemented the knowledge gained from the course and have created three acres of beneficial insect habitat.
During the reporting period, we held seven Conservation Biological Control Short Courses in four states in the Southern SARE region, including three courses using leveraged funds. Details about each course are below. Currently, planning is underway for additional short courses in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. As previously reported, we offered the short course in Virginia in January 2017.
The Alabama short course was held on August, 9, 2017, at the Alabama Power Clanton Conference Center in Clanton, Alabama. We had 25 course participants at this event, including 11 agricultural support staff, primarily from USDA NRCS. This course showcased several guest speakers including Jeff Thurmond, Wildlife Biologist from USDA NRCS, and Dr. Ayanava Majumdar, insect extension specialist from Alabama Cooperative Extension. During the field portion on the course, participants were able to see fantastic examples of trap crops to reduce pest problems in tomato and squash crops.
The Florida short course was offered in partnership with USDA NRCS and was held at the USDA NRCS Plant Materials Center in Brooksville, Florida on August 10, 2017. We had 24 participants at the short course, including seven agricultural support staff and five farmers. The outdoor field activities were the highlight of this course; these included tours and a discussion of the ongoing cover crop trials and pollinator habitat plantings at the Plant Materials Center. The course also included guest speaker presentations by Dr. Hugh Smith, University of Florida Research Entomologist, and Michael Bush, Mimi Williams, and Janet Grabowski from the Florida USDA NRCS.
Our Louisiana course was the last course offered in the region for 2017, and it was held on November 15, 2017, at the USDA NRCS Louisiana State Office in Alexandria, Louisiana. At this course we had 22 course participants, including 15 agricultural support staff and one farmer. Guest speakers included Dr. Brian Strom, USFS Research Entomologist; Dr. Sebe Brown, Louisiana Extension Entomologist; Vernon Fuselier, Prairie Restorationist; and Troy Mallarch, Louisiana NRCS Wildlife Biologist.
Due to the strong interest and demand for conservation biocontrol trainings in Tennessee, we offered a special weeklong series of our short courses to meet the needs of USDA NRCS in Tennessee. To coordinate this special offering, we partnered with Tennessee NRCS to offer four courses in Tennessee during the week of June 5 through 9, 2017. Three of these short courses used leveraged funds from the NRCS.
These full-day courses were offered in Jackson, Murfreesboro, McMinnville, and Knoxville, with NRCS staff making up the majority of attendees at all courses. In total, we had 169 participants attend the four courses including 145 agricultural support staff (NRCS and conservation district staff) and four farmers. The series of courses featured a number of highly respected researchers and extension specialists from Tennessee. These guest presenters included Dr. Scott Stewart and Dr. Gregory Wiggins from the University of Tennessee and Dr. Kaushalya Amarasekare from Tennessee State University. Mike Hansbrough, acting State Biologist from USDA NRCS, also gave a guest presentation at the Jackson short course on Farm Bill support for insect conservation.
Feedback from Short Course Participants
Below is a sample of feedback we’ve received from short course participants during the reporting period:
“Thank you for sharing your extensive knowledge and experience.” –Farmer, Virginia short course
“Xerces provided excellent materials and information – keep it going.” –Agricultural support staff, Murfreesboro, Tennessee short course
“Nothing beats on-farm demonstrations. The session I attended included a tour of a research farm that included beneficial habitats. Very effective. The books and presentations are very helpful, too.” – Researcher, Florida short course
“Thelma was very good and thorough in her presentation. I did not realize how many different insects are out there. I am a lot more careful with applying chemicals now.” – Farmer, Florida short course
“Very good info and great backgrounds on powerpoint—not just boring lists.” – Agricultural support staff, Louisiana short course