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.
The Conservation Biological Control Short Course synthesizes that body of research and offers realistic solutions for enhancing beneficial insect populations on farms. Specific course topics include beneficial insect biology, designing habitat for beneficial insects, pesticide risk mitigation, securing financial support through USDA programs, and real-world case studies.
This project, the outgrowth of a six-year research initiative conducted by the Xerces Society and university research partners, presents conservation biological control as an easy-to-adopt framework for multiple crop systems.
The audience for this project includes IPM specialists, Extension personnel, NRCS conservation planners, Soil and Water Conservation District technicians, state departments of agriculture, crop consultants, and sustainable agriculture organizations.
The project is being promoted through multiple channels, as well as in partnership with relevant agencies and state research and extension leaders. Qualitative and quantitative post-course feedback from participants is incorporated on an ongoing basis.
Based upon the overwhelmingly successful results of a prior PDP project using this same model (related to pollinator conservation), we are confident this project will foster widespread adoption of course concepts across the region.
During this three-year project, we will deliver 12 Conservation Biological Control Short Courses in all Western SARE states. The major product of the Conservation Biological Control Short Course is a community of more than 350 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 will increase 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 new knowledge, participants will be empowered to directly support conservation biological control projects with their clients and to provide farmers with advice on how to fine-tune existing practices.
This short course model builds 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 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, 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 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 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 the Beneficial Insect Habitat Assessment Guide (see Information Products). 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 (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 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, 88% (123 of 138) 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, 88% of course participants (121 of 138) reported increased knowledge in the diversity of beneficial insects and their life cycles, and 77% (106 of 138) 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, 88% (123 of 138) 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 (117 of 138) 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, 92% (127 of 138) 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, 88% (121 of 138) of course participants indicated they had acquired knowledge on additional options for creating or enhancing beneficial insect habitat. Of responding course participants, 84% (116 of 138) 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 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, 72% (99 of 138) reported an increased knowledge in using Farm Bill programs to enhance beneficial insect habitat.
Educational & Outreach Activities
To date, we have conducted 7 short courses in the Western SARE region that were attended by a total of 260 participants, including 68 agricultural support staff and 34 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, master gardeners, and naturalists.
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 260 short course attendees, 53% (138 of 260) completed the day-of-course evaluations.
Of the 43 agricultural support staff who responded to the day-of-course evaluation, 74% (32 of 43) said that they plan to use course information to advise farmers about farm management practices that support beneficial insects. Among those reporting, 56% (24 of 43) 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 864 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, 97% (32 of 33) said that attending the short course changed how they would support beneficial insects on their land. Collectively, this group reported that they manage approximately 7,284 acres of land.
Follow-up Survey Results
In 2017, we distributed a one-year follow-up survey to gauge how past participants were using the information from the short course. We surveyed 178 people who attended one of four Western SARE Conservation Biological Control Short Courses in 2016, and we received 21 responses, for a 12% response rate.
In the one-year follow-up survey, 100% of respondents (21 of 21) reported that the knowledge they gained from the training was useful to their work. Initial survey results indicate that our train-the-trainer approach is leading to expanded beneficial insect conservation efforts, facilitating the installation of habitat and changing land management practices on the ground, and encouraging enrollment in USDA conservation programs.
Of the 11 agricultural support staff responding to the follow-up survey 73% (8 of 11) 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: advised on incorporating beneficial insect conservation measures into how farms or land is managed (6 of 11, 55%), assisted farmers, clients, or land managers in implementing beneficial insect conservation practices (8 of 11, 73%), and made specific recommendations on farm management practices for beneficial insect conservation (7 of 11, 64%).
The 2 farmers who responded to the survey indicated that they had used short course information in the following ways: 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 (1 of 2, 50%); and provided additional habitat resources for beneficial insects, such as wildflower plants, flowering cover crops, etc. (2 of 2, 100%).
The survey respondents also reported on the direct actions that they have taken as a result of course attendance. Agricultural support staff reported that they advised 49 farms, totaling 6,025 acres, on conservation biocontrol practices. On these farms, they advised on the creation of 3,016 acres of habitat (insectary strips, hedgerows, cover crops, etc.) for beneficial insects, and helped change farm management practices to protect beneficial insects on 525 acres. Agricultural support staff also reported that four of the farms they work with enrolled in NRCS conservation programs for beneficial insects.
The farmers and landowners who responded to the follow-up survey reported to have created 1.5 acres of beneficial insect habitat, changed their pest management practices to conserve beneficial insects on 2.5 acres of cropland, and altered their farming practices on 2.5 acres to support beneficial insects. These respondents grow a variety of crops including peach, apple, plum, pear, cherry, lavender, flowers, herbs, lettuce, olives, perennial plants, and cool- and warm-season vegetables.
In addition to agricultural service providers and farmers, our survey included responses from 8 other attendees who did not identify themselves as either agricultural service providers or farmers/landowners. These participants included lawyers, garden designers, gardeners, students, homeowners, and beekeepers. While these individuals may not have been our target audience, they too incorporated and implemented the knowledge gained from the course, and have created 0.8 acre of beneficial insect habitat.
In 2017, we held Conservation Biological Control Short Courses in Idaho, Oregon, and Utah. Details about each course are below. Currently, planning is underway for additional short courses in Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming for the spring and summer of 2018.
The Idaho short course was held on September 12, 2017, at The Boise Center in Boise, Idaho, in partnership with the Idaho NRCS and Peaceful Belly Farm, a local diversified organic vegetable and fruit farm where the course’s field activities were held. We had 16 course participants in attendance, including 15 agricultural support staff and 2 farmers. Guest speakers included Jade Florence from the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides, Ron Bittner from Bittner Vineyards, and Ron Brooks from Idaho NRCS. In the afternoon, course participants conducted habitat assessments and surveyed for beneficial insects at Peaceful Belly Farm.
Our Oregon short course was a two-day training event held in partnership with the Tualatin Soil & Water Conservation District. The course was held on July 13 and 14, 2017, at Clean Water Services in Hillsboro, Oregon. The first day of the course consisted of presentations by Xerces Society staff and guest speakers, and the second day was spent in the field. Participants visited farm sites where they assessed farm habitat for beneficial insects and completed beneficial insect identification and collection exercises. The course was attended by 29 participants including 6 agricultural support staff and 8 farmers. Highlights for the course included guest speaker presentations by Dean Moberg of Oregon NRCS, Nick Andrews of Oregon State University Extension, and Sharon Selvaggio of the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides.
The Utah short course was held on September 28, 2017, at the Utah State University Cooperative Extension Services and Kaysville Research Farm in Kaysville, Utah. We partnered with Marin Murray of USU Extension Services to bring this course to Utah. The course was attended by 37 people, including 7 agricultural support staff and 6 farmers. Highlights for this course included guest speaker presentations by Dr. Ricardo Ramirez of the University of Utah, Marion Murray of University of Utah Extension Services, and Allen Hales of Utah NRCS. Afternoon activities included beneficial insect scouting and habitat assessment at the research farm.
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. Below is a sample of feedback we’ve received from short course participants in 2017:
“I really benefited from the information I gained. Very good short course!” –Farmer and agricultural support staff, Idaho short course
“It was fantastic. Keep up the good work. The resources made available are so useful and applicable.” –Agricultural support staff, Utah short course
“Great job! Loved the info specific to our area. –Agricultural support staff, Idaho short course
“Thank you. Appreciate professional scientists sharing knowledge. Inspiring to see women scientists!” –Course participant, Utah short course
“The speaker was absolutely wonderful! Love her. Learned so much!” –Farmer, Utah short course
In addition, the 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 one-year 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.