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During the Biocontrol Field Tour hosted by the ESA Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section in the Wenatchee, Washington, area in May 2022, tour participants meet at a Zirkle Fruit orchard for the second day of the tour. (Photo by Suzanne Wainwright)

By Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris, Ph.D., Dalton Ludwick, Ph.D., Alix Whitener, Ph.D., and Teah Smith

In May 2022, the ESA Plant-Insect Ecosystems (P-IE) Section hosted a Biocontrol Field Tour in the Wenatchee, Washington, area. The tour was part of a series of tours held by the P-IE Section and the first tour to be held since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Past tours focused on pollinators (Mississippi Delta in 2017, North Dakota in 2018), invasive species (southeastern Pennsylvania in 2018), and pesticide resistance management (Nebraska and Iowa in 2019). P-IE has historically partnered with other ESA sections and other societies (e.g., Weed Science Society of America) as appropriate for these tours.

The biocontrol tour was held against the backdrop of the Washington state tree fruit industry, which has a long history of successful implementation of classical, augmentative, and conservation biological control. Fifty-two participants met the first evening at Pybus Public Market for dinner and discussions to set the stage for the tour. Initial discussion groups mixed tour participants to ensure that each table encompassed a variety of viewpoints, including university researchers, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) researchers, growers, crop consultants, and biocontrol and agrochemical industry professionals.

Participants were asked to describe the biggest challenges for biocontrol implementation from the perspective of their current position or crop system and to brainstorm potential solutions to these challenges as a group. While the details of the challenges varied, in general, groups agreed that education—through additional research and extension activities—and improved communication between groups were key to addressing the challenges. This networking activity was one of the most enjoyed parts of the tour, and one participant noted that, “Having a small group of the right people in the room is the way to share information and get problems solved.”

On a gravel road near an orchard, a man holds a clear cylinder while standing next to a black and red eight-rotor drone on the ground.
A group of people standing at the edge of an orchard looking into the sky, where a drone is flying above them.
A red four-wheel all-terrain vehicle sits in the grass near plants at an orchard. On the back of the ATV is a green metal frame that holds up caged metal fans and white buckets above them on silver poles. In front of the ATV is a white box that says "KOPPERT."
Two people look closely at a sample of small dark insects in a petri dish that one of them is holding.
About 10 people have a discussion while sitting at a long picnic bench in a pavilion on a sunny day.
People seated in metal folding chairs in rows viewing a presentation on a projector screen.
A man reaches into a mesh cage in a scientific laboratory as three other people watch.

Zirkle Fruit Company hosted the field components of the tour at its Othello Ranch location. We started the day with demonstrations of deploying natural enemies for augmentation via drone (by G.S. Long Company and Parabug) and via a vehicle-mounted blower (by Koppert). Other insectary companies provided updates about available natural enemies and other products, and the team from Washington summarized ongoing research on release best practices. Sunview Vineyards (California) described the operation for rearing its own predatory mites for release to control spider mites. Participants walked through an on-farm native floral planting to scout for beneficial insects and were given an overview of the environmental and economic benefits of the planting by Zirkle’s Teah Smith and Corin Pease of the Xerces Society.

Next, a set of classroom talks covered a variety of topics on conservation biological control, including pesticide compatibility and a summary of the history of conservation biological control in Washington tree fruit, courtesy of Betsy Beers, Ph.D., of Washington State University. The day ended with a talk by Judith Stahl, Ph.D., of the University of California, Berkeley, on the classical biological control quarantine and approval process and a ceremonial “releasing of the wasps” by Jana Lee, Ph.D., project lead for the spotted wing drosophila areawide management project at the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), including releases of Ganaspis brasiliensis.

The next morning, the group met at Walla Walla Point Park for donuts and coffee and to discuss what they had learned from the tour. Nearly all participants agreed that they gained useful information during the tour and would apply something that they had learned. The most popular “take home” ideas were beneficial plantings and releasing biocontrol agents (either from a practitioner or researcher perspective). Networking opportunities were by far the most popular part of the tour. Industry professionals hoped that the tour showed students that biological control was a viable career, emphasizing that all aspects of the industry need trained, motivated practitioners with a well-rounded agronomic background to be successful.

During the Biocontrol Field Tour hosted by the ESA Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section in the Wenatchee, Washington, area in May 2022, participants viewed a demonstration of releasing lacewings into an orchard using a drone. (Video by Aaron DeHerrera)

Participants came away with an increased understanding of the importance of demonstrations to show the viability of particular management tools. Growers emphasized that it is important to set realistic expectations, because biocontrol often requires a longer timeline to demonstrate its success than pesticides. Areas where more research is most needed were underscored: quantifying biocontrol effects and economic analysis in a variety of crops, making tailored best-practice recommendations, and developing management thresholds that include natural enemies (i.e., “farmer-izing” biocontrol) in the equation.

The tour provided networking opportunities for entomology graduate students and early career professionals. Thanks to more than $5,000 in sponsorships, we were able to provide travel support to two students and two ECP members, who received funding through a competitive application process. Congratulations once again to Monica Farfan, Ph.D., executive director of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative at  Colorado State University; Ashley Leach, Ph.D., assistant professor at Ohio State University; Julian Cosner, doctoral student at the University of Tennessee; and Charlotte Schuttler, master’s student at Michigan State University. Sponsors included Certis Biologicals, Corteva Agriscience, FMC Corporation, Marrone Bio Innovations, and Trécé, Inc.

On the third and final morning of the Biocontrol Field Tour hosted by the ESA Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section in the Wenatchee, Washington, area in May 2022, participants gathered for a group photo after breakout discussions. (Photo by Dalton Ludwick, Ph.D.)

Did you miss out on the 2022 field tour? More P-IE Section field tours are still to come! This year, an Invasive Species Field Tour will be held in Orlando, Florida, September 12-14, 2023. The tour will focus on various invasive pests affecting natural and managed landscapes in the southern U.S., including forest pests, agricultural pests, and pests in urban and suburban areas. Experts in entomology and pathology who are focused on both research and management will discuss how these pests arrived, what we are trying to do about them, and what the future holds for invasive pest detection and management. Learn more and register by July 31 for a discounted rate.

Do you have an idea for a future field tour? The P-IE Section is seeking new tour ideas and organizers for 2024 and beyond. Contact P-IE Section leadership if you have an idea or for more information on how to plan a successful tour.

Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris, Ph.D., is a research entomologist at the USDA-ARS  Temperate Tree Fruit & Vegetable Research Unit in Wapato, Washington. Email:  rebecca.schmidt@usda.gov. Dalton Ludwick, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and extension entomologist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Corpus Christi, Texas. Alix Whitener, Ph.D., is the U.S. field development manager at FMC Corporation in Malaga, Washington. Teah Smith is an entomologist and agriculture consultant at Zirkle Fruit Company in Wenatchee, Washington.

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