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, farmers as diverse as pumpkin growers in New Mexico and wine grape producers in eastern Washington benefit from natural pest control.
To address this need, we developed the Conservation Biological Control Short Course, which synthesizes the latest research on beneficial insect conservation and offers realistic solutions for enhancing beneficial insect populations on farms. This project was the outgrowth of a six-year research initiative conducted by the Xerces Society and university research partners, and in the short course, we presented conservation biological control as an easy-to-adopt framework for multiple crop systems. Specific course topics include beneficial insect biology, designing habitat enhancements, farm practices to support beneficial insects, pesticide risk mitigation, securing financial support through USDA programs, and real-world case studies.
We promoted our project through multiple channels, as well as in partnership with relevant agencies and State SARE Coordinators. 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 or webinar in each state of the Western 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.
Through this project, we reached 418 people from all Western SARE states who attended a Conservation Biological Control Short Course or webinar. Follow-up surveys showed that short courses improved attendees’ skills and capacity to implement beneficial insect habitat and adopt farm management practices such as incorporating flowering cover crops, reducing tillage, and changing pesticide use to protect beneficial insects. In addition, agricultural service providers who attended a short course reported advising on NRCS conservation programs for beneficial insects on 50 farms.
During this three-year project, we delivered 12 Conservation Biological Control Short Courses and one webinar in all Western SARE states, providing training for 418 participants, exceeding our goal of 350 short course attendees. The Conservation Biological Control Short Course resulted in a community of farm educators, crop consultants, and conservation planners who are empowered with new knowledge and the enthusiasm, motivation, and confidence to share that knowledge with the farmers they support.
Through this project, participants increased their knowledge of beneficial insect biology, habitat requirements, the design and installation of new habitat, pesticide risk mitigation, and how to support these efforts through USDA conservation programs. With this knowledge, participants are able to support conservation biological control projects with their clients and provide farmers with advice on how to fine-tune existing practices for beneficial insect conservation.
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 were not specific to California, we spent several years compiling additional findings from across the country and comparing notes with key biological control researchers in the Western SARE region, including Dr. Tessa Grasswitz (formerly at New Mexico State University), Dr. Paul Jepson (Oregon State University), Dr. Whitney Cranshaw (Colorado State University), and others.
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 Western states.
This short course was modeled upon a previous, highly successful SARE PDP project conducted by the Xerces Society for Western 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 45-minute 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 was supported by a participant toolkit that included 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, and the book Farming with Beneficial Insects.
Course publications and lecture modules were developed in consultation with scientific advisors at land grant universities across the U.S. and were 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 initial feedback has been 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 farmers and producers on conducting conservation biological control related research, they were 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 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 the Beneficial Insect Habitat Assessment Guide (see Information Products). Using this tool, our instructors led 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 found that this exercise gave 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 gained 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 were introduced to the importance of ecological pest control through the conservation of beneficial insects. We provided 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 provided 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, 88% (206 of 233) 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 were 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 were highlighted, and details on identification, insect life cycles, and habitat needs were provided. Course participants were 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, 88% of course participants (205 of 233) reported increased knowledge in the diversity of beneficial insects and their life cycles, and 80% (186 of 233) 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 became 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) was 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 were 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, 85% (198 of 233) 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, 82% of course participants (192 of 233) 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 were 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 were introduced to the Xerces Society’s Beneficial Insect Habitat Assessment Guide (HAG) tool. The HAG was then used to assess a case study farm from the state or region. The module wrapped 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, 90% (210 of 233) 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 were familiarized with the diversity of habitat features that can be incorporated into a farm to support conservation biological control. Habitats included both permanent (perennial) and quick-growing (annual) planting options. This module also included a discussion of farm planning for ideal placement of new habitat areas. Course participants walked through the process of habitat restoration, including several options for site preparation management. Finally, additional print and online resources were 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, 88% (206 of 233) of course participants indicated they had acquired knowledge on additional options for creating or enhancing beneficial insect habitat. Of responding course participants, 82% (191 of 233) 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 efforts through USDA Farm Bill programs
In this lecture module, course participants were familiarized with the financial support options available through the USDA to create on-farm habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. This included an overview of Farm Bill conservation programs and options to obtain technical and financial support for habitat creation on farmland. An invited NRCS guest speaker who is familiar with that state’s insect conservation programs typically presented 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, 65% (152 of 233) reported an increased knowledge in using Farm Bill programs to enhance beneficial insect habitat.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We conducted 12 short courses in the Western SARE region that were attended by a total of 387 participants, including 115 agricultural support staff and 48 farmers. In lieu of a short course, we offered a webinar on conservation biological control to better reach people across Hawaii. This webinar, offered in partnership with the University of Hawaii in August 2018, covered the same topics as the short courses in an abbreviated format. A guest presenter from the University of Hawaii discussed beneficial insects in Hawaii and shared beneficial insect conservation case studies. The webinar was attended by 31 participants, including 7 agricultural support staff and 3 farmers.
The primary audiences at all of these events were staff from the NRCS, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Extension, and sustainable agricultural organizations as well as a number of individual farmers, researchers, farm/orchard/garden managers, pest control specialists, master gardeners, and sustainable agriculture students.
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 387 short course attendees, 60% (233 of 387) completed the day-of-course evaluations.
Of the 87 agricultural support staff who responded to the day-of-course evaluation, 74% (64 of 87) said that they plan to use course information to advise farmers about farm management practices that support beneficial insects. Among those agricultural support staff reporting, 59% (51 of 87) said they would suggest providing additional habitat resources for beneficial insects (e.g. habitat plantings, cover crops), 57% (50 of 87) said they would incorporate beneficial insect habitat enhancement into existing trainings on federal conservation programs, and 52% (45 of 87) said they would consider pesticide impacts on beneficial insects in future pest control decisions. In total, these agricultural support staff estimated that they interact with 4,101 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, 94% (44 of 47) said that attending the short course changed how they would support beneficial insects on their land. Collectively, this group reported that they manage approximately 13,980 acres of land.
In 2017 and 2018, we distributed follow-up surveys to gauge how past participants were using the information from the short course. We surveyed 310 people who attended one of nine Western SARE Conservation Biological Control Short Courses in 2016, 2017, and 2018, and we received 40 responses, for a 13% response rate.
In the follow-up survey, 100% of respondents (40 of 40) 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 12 agricultural support staff responding to the follow-up survey 75% (9 of 12) reported taking targeted action(s) to educate or 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 (7 of 12, 58%); made specific recommendations on farm management practices for beneficial insect conservation (7 of 12, 58%); advised on incorporating beneficial insect conservation measures into how farms or land is managed (6 of 12, 50%); included beneficial insect conservation in education or outreach programs (5 of 12, 42%); made recommendations on pesticide use practices (3 of 12, 25%); encouraged or assisted with enrollment in NRCS conservation programs for beneficial insects (3 of 12, 25%); and included beneficial insect conservation in written publications, such as technical guides or newsletters (1 of 12, 8%).
Agricultural support staff reported that they advised 50 farms, totaling 6,028 acres, on conservation biocontrol practices. On these farms, they advised on the creation of 3,037 acres of habitat (insectary strips, hedgerows, cover crops, etc.) for beneficial insects, and helped change farm management practices to protect beneficial insects on 3,160 acres. Agricultural support staff also reported that four of the farms they work with enrolled in NRCS conservation programs for beneficial insects.
The five 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. (4 of 5, 80%); incorporated beneficial insect conservation measures into how their farm or land is managed (3 of 5, 60%); considered pesticide impacts on beneficial insects in pest management decisions (3 of 5, 60%); and enrolled in NRCS programs for beneficial insects (3 of 5, 60%). They reported changing their pest management practices to conserve beneficial insects on 9.5 acres of cropland, altering their farming practices on 8.6 acres to support beneficial insects, and creating 2.2 acres of beneficial insect habitat. These respondents grow a variety of crops including a wide variety of cool- and warm-season fruits and vegetables, alfalfa, grass, grain, hay, cut flowers, and raise honey bees and goats.
In addition to agricultural service providers and farmers, our survey included responses from 23 other attendees who did not identify themselves as either agricultural service providers or farmers/landowners. These participants included state department of agriculture staff, students, master gardeners, home gardeners, pest control advisors, garden designers, native plant society members, lawyers, beekeepers, land managers, and arborists.
While these individuals 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 4.79 acres of beneficial insect habitat and changed their pest management practices to conserve beneficial insects on 12.6 acres of land. They also altered their farming/gardening/land management practices on 16.1 acres to support beneficial insects.
Through this project, we are impacting the way that agricultural support staff, farmers and other land managers incorporate conservation biological control practices into their work. Participants provided valuable feedback through our follow-up survey and via individual correspondence with the instructor. Below is a sample of feedback we’ve received from short course participants in 2017 and 2018:
“I really benefited from the information I gained. Very good short course!” –Farmer and agricultural support staff, 2017 Idaho short course
“It was fantastic. Keep up the good work. The resources made available are so useful and applicable.” –Agricultural support staff, 2017 Utah short course
“Great job! Loved the info specific to our area. –Agricultural support staff, 2017 Idaho short course
“Thank you. Appreciate professional scientists sharing knowledge. Inspiring to see women scientists!” –Course participant, 2017 Utah short course
“The speaker was absolutely wonderful! Love her. Learned so much!” –Farmer, 2017 Utah short course
“Thank you so much for coming to Colorado to put on this workshop.” –Agricultural support staff, 2018 Colorado short course
“This was a great course. Thelma was very informative and easy to talk to.” –Agricultural support staff, Los Lunas, 2018 New Mexico course
“I enjoyed the passion and interest of the people and the presenter. She really seems to like what she does.” –Farmer, 2018 Montana short course
In addition, the 2017 Oregon short course was featured in an article on the Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District’s website (see https://www.swcd.net/news/farming-beneficial-insects-pest-control-workshop/.) The course, Farming with Beneficial Insects for Pest Control, was delivered in partnership with the Soil and Water Conservation District and included guest speakers on crop pests and pesticide use as well as a field component at farm restoration sites. The article describes the course’s successes and includes photos throughout the two-day training.
In reviewing the results of the follow-up survey and reflecting on our experiences in delivering these courses, there is 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 follow-up survey, course participants identified barriers to the increased use of conservation biological control, including a general lack of awareness about beneficial insects and a lack of support from federal agencies. They also cited the need for additional crop-specific resources and associated beneficial insects (for example, in almonds), additional trainings to help promote this worthy pest management strategy, and additional resources or trainings on the identification and scouting of beneficial insects in the field.