Ecology in agriculture

I am an agro-ecologist using ecological theory to inform integrated pest management strategies for specialty crops. My projects in organic and conventional fruit and vegetable systems respond to growers’ needs for alternative, innovative, and sustainable tactics for pest management. I work on field-testing new technologies in insect behavioral manipulation, habitat manipulation for conservation biological control of key pests, and how to combine effective and appropriate agricultural practices for pest management. Scroll down for more information on current and past projects, or click here for my CV.

Conventional pest management tactics are ineffective against key asparagus pests

Current projects: Integrated pest management in asparagus. Growers of specialty crops like asparagus have limited options for effective pest management. As part of the Vegetable Entomology and Organic Pest Management labs at Michigan State University, I have several ongoing projects in asparagus IPM:

1) Habitat manipulation and landscape effects on conservation biological control of asparagus miner and common asparagus beetle. For the past two years I have been exploring the use of flowering borders to augment populations of parasitoids and predators that attack key asparagus specialists. These projects have focused on identifying flowering plant species that attract natural enemies but not pests to asparagus fields. This summer I will begin characterizing the landscape surrounding asparagus fields to correlate landscape composition with pest and natural enemy abundances. This information will help growers make informed decisions about how to implement habitat manipulation in their region.

2) Targeted chemical control of Japanese beetle using semiochemical behavioral manipulation with attract-and-kill devices. Japanese beetles are cosmopolitan generalist pests that migrate into asparagus fields as adults. I am exploring methodologies to manage Japanese beetle penetration into fields using attract-and-kill devices, which deliver small amounts of contact insecticide specifically to Japanese beetles. Growers and homeowners can use this technology to manage Japanese beetle adults without high-input chemical sprays.

Japanese beetle traps help us monitor effectiveness of attract-and-kill technology

3) Insecticide-induced changes in volatile profiles in asparagus. For the past two years, a chemigation spray trial using a neonicotinoid insecticide has found that some species of insects are attracted to chemically treated plants. This summer, I am measuring changes in plant volatile profiles in asparagus in response to insecticide and insect damage.

Students establish field cages to grow asparagus for volatile sampling
Sampling for nematodes in a recently mowed and strip tilled cover crop plot.

Previous projects: Sustainable techniques in organic agro-ecosystems. Agricultural crops face a complex seasonal environment of weedy competitors, insect herbivores, and diseases. For organic growers, options for pest management are limited. Sustainable techniques like cover crops and tillage can be used to manage plant and insect pests. In this project with the Sustainable Agriculture lab at the University of Maryland, I investigated how the presence and diversity of cover crops influences plant productivity, soil quality, and plant-insect interactions in organic squash. This research, along with others in the lab group, combined foundational ecological theory, applied techniques, and economic assessments to provide organic growers with relevant information for using sustainable ecological techniques to help manage plant and insect pest communities.


Many flowering plants must attract pollinators while avoiding herbivores

Joint effects of pollinators and herbivores on plant growth and reproduction in natural systems. Insect communities have simultaneous antagonistic and mutualistic effects on their shared host plants. During my PhD work with Nora Underwood and Brian Inouye at Florida State University, I used the perennial flowering herb Chamerion angustifolium (fireweed) and its insect pollinators and herbivores to quantify within- and among-year herbivore and pollinator responses to changes in plant phenotype, and plant responses to damage and pollination. This research revealed a complex network of within- and among-year feedback between foragers and plant traits.

Effects of damage on plant growth and asexual reproduction in an invasive plant. For the many plant species that reproduce both sexually and asexually, herbivory or pollination may influence mode of reproduction. The aquatic plant Eichhornia crassipes (water hyacinth) is capable of rapid asexual reproduction. I mimicked adult and larval specialist weevil (Neochetina eichhorniae and N. bruchi) damage and hand pollinated water hyacinth to investigate plant growth, sexual reproduction, asexual reproduction, and resistance to herbivores in response to damage type and pollination success, finding that herbivores can have important effects on asexual plant reproduction.

Checking for babies
Checking damaged water hyacinth for clonal growth

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