Eric Lee-Mӓder, Farming with Native Beneficial Insects: Ecological Pest Control Solutions

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EricMader200Eric Mader is the Pollinator Conservation Program Co-Director at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (www.xerces.org). In this role Eric works across the world with farmers and the agencies like the US Department of Agriculture and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to enhance functional biodiversity in working agricultural lands. His professional background includes previous work as an extension farm educator, commercial beekeeper, and crop consultant for the native seed industry. Eric is the author of several books including the best-selling Attracting Native Pollinators, and Farming with Beneficial Insects: Strategies for Ecological Pest Management, both by Storey Publishing.

TRANSCRIPTION:

Hello everybody. It’s time for It’s All About Food, Part 2. I’m Caryn Hartglass and it’s September 30th, 2014. Now we’re going to talk about something I’ve been wanting to talk about for quite awhile and I’m glad we’re finally getting to it. I’m going to bring on my guest Eric Lee-Mader who is the Pollinator Conservation Program Co-Director at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. In this role Eric works across the world with farmers and agencies like the USDA and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to enhance functional biodiversity in working agricultural lands. His professional background includes previous work as an extension farm educator, commercial beekeeper, and crop consultant for the native seed industry. He’s the author of several books including Attracting Native Pollinators and Farming with Native Beneficial Insects. That’s what we’re going to be talking about now and it’s a new book that just came out. Hi Eric, how are you today?

Eric Lee-Mӓder: Very good Caryn. It’s great to join you.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah I’m glad we’re finally able to do this. We’ve been trying to coordinate something for quite some time and here we are.

Eric Lee-Mӓder: Yeah.

Caryn Hartglass: So tell me first: Xerces, am I pronouncing that correctly?

Eric Lee-Mӓder: It’s close. It’s actually the Xerces (Zer-cees) Society.

Caryn Hartglass: Xerces, ok. What’s that mean?

Eric Lee-Mӓder: I realize it’s a rather unusual name but the Xerces Society is perhaps the oldest wildlife conservation organization in the United States that most people have never heard of. We actually take our name from the now extinct Xerces Blue Butterfly. It was the first butterfly to go extinct in the United States due to human-influenced habitat loss. It was actually a casualty of the second World War when the last of its habitat in the San Francisco area was paved over to build the Presidio Naval Base for the war effort. We are actually a forty-four year old organization today. We began as a butterfly conservation group but have really expanded our focus over time to work on invertebrate animals more broadly which tend to be the most under-represented animals in traditional wildlife conservation effort. We work on things like fresh water mussels which are probably the most imperiled group of organisms on earth today. We still do the butterfly conservation work. We do work with amazing creatures like migratory dragonflies. Then we have our Pollinator Conservation Program, the program that I co-direct which is really our largest program area and work primarily in agricultural and sort of a framework for bringing farmers which are incredibly dependent on pollinators and on bees for pollination to bring them to the table and get them engaged in conservation.

Caryn Hartglass: I’ve read your book Farming with Native Beneficial Insects and I really enjoyed it. What I love about it is your solutions are not only beneficial because they’re going to help us make a more sustainable world reducing pesticides and herbicides and helping farmers yield better products but the solutions are beautiful, stunningly beautiful.

Eric Lee-Mӓder: They are beautiful, yeah. And I’m glad you mentioned the new book. Farming with Native Beneficial Insects actually represents a bit of a departure for the Pollinator Conservation Program because it’s really an effort on our part to now look at the concept of conservation biological control which serves the strategies around which we manipulate landscapes to bring in predatory and parasitoid insects that prey upon crop pests and reduce and in some cases eliminate the need for insecticides. It’s a form of natural pest control. As you say the actual on the ground implementation of these strategies is beautiful, specifically involves creating native wildflower meadows, field borders on native shrub hedgerows that support broader biodiversities, support songbirds, hummingbirds. It’s a more holistic approach to agriculture and it’s really an attempt to blur the lines between agriculture and ecology in a very much science-based way. So, yeah, it’s sort of a combination of landscape architecture and agriculture. The pragmatic results are beautiful and the aesthetic results are certainly stunning to look at.

Caryn Hartglass: I love when solutions are a win-win all around and Farming with Native Beneficial Insects sounds like that to me. I think a lot of our problems started or became more intensified right after World War II. Chemical companies were done making destructive war chemicals and were figuring out what they could do with them and they turned into pesticides and killing bugs. People applauded them for enabling us to grow more and yield more and farmers started to go away from hundred-years-old techniques of rotating fields in order to get more efficiency—I hate the word “efficiency” these days because we don’t look at all the costs of efficiency. And now we’re struggling because of it. Everything is damaged. The soil is damaged. We have droughts and the food isn’t as good and we’re killing the bugs that can help us.

Eric Lee-Mӓder: Really we’re running out of options.

Caryn Hartglass: We’re running out of options, yeah!

Eric Lee-Mӓder: With this strategy of insecticide or chemical-based pest control it’s inevitable that pest resistance to insecticides evolved. We see this with every class of insecticides and use both historically and today that resistance evolves in a given time frame, in some cases a very quick time frame. That’s sort of built in to the pesticide industry business model—to be constantly creating new products. It’s interesting that the natural cycle of chemicals in the marketplace where pest resistance typically evolves within roughly the same time frame that pesticides go off patent and become available for other chemical companies to mimic. So there’s these dual incentives to constantly be creating new classes of insecticides. We certainly know the historical track record of insecticides and their role in sustaining or harming global biodiversity. I will just point out today—I’m much more of a technical guy, I like to be talking about the bees or the beneficial insects and how you actually do this on the farm than I am comfortable talking about policy—but I will just point out today that there is an incredible assessment of global wildlife biodiversity that came out through a published report from, I believe, the London Zoological Society today that calculates based upon current models of wildlife population stability that all wildlife groups are disappearing at probably twice the rates we originally suspected. And this is across taxonomy, it includes mammals, it includes fishes, it includes birds, as a base of all of these food webs, both terrestrial and aquatic are invertebrates—the bugs, the mollusks, the crustaceans—these are the food base for all other animals on earth. Probably the most significant threat to those animals along with habitat loss is pesticide use.

Caryn Hartglass: So we could have a domino effect?

Eric Lee-Mӓder: We are having a domino effect.

Caryn Hartglass: And your society has some really outstanding solutions. Let’s just have a little bit about the different bugs. Most of us don’t know much about bugs and bugs creep us out. All these solutions that you have are not just for big farms. They’re also for gardeners.

Eric Lee-Mӓder: Correct, yeah. At the base of all of these strategies or these recommendations is an understanding that beneficial insects whether we’re talking about lacewings that feed upon aphids or whether we’re talking about bees that will pollinate blueberries, pumpkins, whether we’re talking about lady beetles that might be eating thrips or spider mites in your garden or on your farm—these animals all typically need some form of alternative food throughout the year. Typically they depend upon pollen or nectar to sustain them when prey insects are not available. So planting wildflowers or inter-cropping wildflowers with agricultural crops can provide those beneficial insects—whether they’re bees or whether they’re predators of pests—can provide them with food that can sustain them throughout the growing season. It’s especially beneficial to focus on truly and locally native wildflowers as opposed to introduced wildflowers. Beneficial insects that we have in our gardens and our farms co-evolved with locally native plants. Whereas pest insects many of them are not native to North America. They tend to thrive in relationship to non-native plant species including crops but also non-native wildflowers. So by really creating farms or gardens that seamlessly blend areas of native natural plant habitat with crops you create these corridors for these beneficial insects to move throughout the farms and gardens to sustain them throughout the year. At the same time you help deprive pest insects of refuge, places where they can lay eggs or over-winter and maintain population that you may not want. It’s amazingly sort of simple as a principle and many people are sort of taken aback at that simplicity but it truly is that simple and it’s scalable. My organization the Xerces Society works with everybody from backyard gardeners who are doing this to people growing thousands of acres of small grains or oil seed crops or almonds and at every level you can integrate these principals, integrate native natural plant habitat into a crop system.

Caryn Hartglass: I love it so much. I was just like smiling on every page of this book. Is there a time when a beneficial insect can become a pest or vice versa where a pest can be beneficial? Does it depend on the locale or once you’re good, you’re good and once you’re bad, you’re bad?

Eric Lee-Mӓder: I’m trying to think of a specific example of this and probably—unfortunately—the best example I have are of human introduced “beneficial” insects, biological controlled basically for specific pests. Here, in the case of the United States there have been efforts by the US Department of Agriculture to introduce parasitic wasps of the gypsy moth. Of course the gypsy moth is an introduced pest, highly highly detrimental pest to the Eastern hardwood forests of the United States especially—a huge defoliator of forests. There have been these attempts to introduce these parasitory wasps to prey upon them. They’d go back to the locations where the gypsy moth evolved, were native to, and they brought its parasite to the United States from those areas. The effectiveness of those parasitic wasps on gypsy moth pests has been debatable. One thing that isn’t as debatable is the fact that we have seen these parasitic wasps having a broader appetite range than what we originally thought they would. So they also have, in some cases, attacked native species of native silk moth—really beautiful fairly uncommon and unique native silk moths of North America that are now even less common because we’ve introduced a supposedly beneficial insect for another pest that has further reduced their population. I think with these introduced beneficials we do tend to run into more complex issues of ecology and pest vs beneficials and having to evaluate the cost benefits of that. With our native species it’s typically not the case that we see something that is a beneficial insect sort of becoming a pest in a different context. I should say that I sort of hesitate—although I do it constantly—I use the term beneficial insect I sort of hesitate to use that intuitively just knowing that really the vast majority of insect species on earth—probably 99.9% of the hundreds of thousands of insect species on earth are truly either beneficial to us or totally benign. A very small number that spread diseases or prey upon beneficial insects or prey upon plants that we depend upon.

Caryn Hartglass: I don’t know much about bugs but I want to think that that’s true. We’re very good at labeling things with negative labels. We have names for weeds. For some people weeds are nutritious plants. Maybe if we didn’t create an environment where these bugs thrive and destroy so much there wouldn’t be a pest.

Eric Lee-Mӓder: That’s absolutely right. These are intuitive concepts so the things we typically think of as pests are pests in monoculture crops because those are the only insects that those monoculture crop systems can sustain. If you’ve got a more diversified land-base with different types of crops, unrelated crops, and these native flowering plants integrated into it suddenly the food web becomes infinitely more complex. We really create a landscape where pest populations struggle to reach an economically damaged threshold.

Caryn Hartglass: The bugs people know most about are the bees. We hear a lot about the loss of bee population and these new neonicotinoids that are killing them. What I keep reading in your book is the creation of all these wonderful grasses and wildflowers around the crop fields give such a lush environment for bees and other beneficial insects to thrive.

Eric Lee-Mӓder: Yeah. In fact we see—and I work with these farmers—I work with farmers all over the US who are able to integrate habitat places into the farms. Their dependence on say, managed honey bees for crop pollination can go away. They can literally substitute habitats for rental honey bee hives for crop pollination. You have the habitat you support a wild base population of native wild pollinating bees and your crop can be entirely pollinated by that assuming you have the scale of habitat necessary to support that crop. And the same is true with pest control.

Caryn Hartglass: My understanding is that a lot of these large farms and agribusiness bring bee colonies in to pollinate and if they had an environment like you’re suggesting would they not need to do that—the pollinators would be right there and stay there?

Eric Lee-Mӓder: Correct. There’s amazing research around this now—research from New Jersey, research going on at the University of California, Michigan State University is routinely and repeatedly demonstrating that farms that have a sufficient amount of habitat on them do not need to bring in rental honey bee hives for pollination. They can get all their pollination exclusively from the wild bees supported on the landscape. This works obviously very intuitively on a small scale. I think everybody kind of gets that “yeah makes sense that a small farm or a large garden could do that” but in fact this does work on a really large scale as well. I’m calling from Canada here today and it’s amazing research that’s been done in Western Canada looking at canola pollination. Canola is something that does benefit from bee pollination. Amazingly here in Western Canada large scale growers can make more money, they can produce more canola feed, in the absence of honey bees if they take thirty percent or more of the farm out of crop production and leave it as wild natural habitat. It’s counter-intuitive that you take land out of production and you actually increase yield but in fact that’s the case. That is the case specifically because these natural areas sustain wild pollinators that can increase the yields of canola on the remaining amount of land.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s really exciting. I’m wondering why aren’t all conventional farmers jumping on the bandwagon and doing this. I understand that the initial investment of time and money is big or maybe inhibiting but over the long term it’s really a win.

Eric Lee-Mӓder: It is and the question you’re posing is one that a lot of people are posing. It’s a sociological question much more than an agronomic question. There are people looking at that question finally. So we are—my colleagues at the Xerces Society—are working with researchers at Michigan State University to manage a now nation-wide project called Integrative Plot Pollination. We’re looking at different aspects of the puzzle how we can add habitat to farms, how we can improve conditions for managed bees like honey bees or mason bees that people may be keeping for crop pollination. We’ve also brought in the sociologists to look at this question of why adoption is relatively slow. That said there are some amazing farmers in the United States who are adopting this. My organization has offices in New Jersey, in Texas, in North Carolina, in Nebraska, in Minnesota, in California, in Oregon. We work farmers literally in all fifty states now who are doing this, adding habitat to their farms for natural pest management and for pollination and having great success with it.

Caryn Hartglass: We need to have some kind of critical mass.

Eric Lee-Mӓder: I think we have had in recent years—four or five years—we have had farmers plant at least 160,000 acres of wildflowers on their farms to support these insects so it is happening. It certainly needs to happen faster. We are seeing gains now in this concept that we’ve never seen before in modern history.

Caryn Hartglass: We have a couple of minutes left—could we just touch on the drought in California. Are there scenarios that you can propose that would actually work well with the drought and kind of reduce some of the risks and symptoms?

Eric Lee-Mӓder: It’s hard from purely a crop productivity standpoint. My work has sort of a limited overlap with the drought but I will say this: We have amazing work, amazing habitat restoration work going on in California right now to support pollinators and beneficial insects. We have an almond orchard that is hundreds of acres in size that is adding miles, literally miles, of native shrub hedgerows to the farm to support these unsung insect heroes. Those hedgerows are made up of native California plant seeds that are truly drought tolerant. So these habitat systems, these conservation systems, are built for the weather and climate conditions that we have, built for hundreds or thousands of years of landscape and they are built to withstand these tough drought conditions and sustain biodiversity in the middle of that drought. So agricultures sustainability in drought context is maybe a big question mark but these natural areas for beneficial insects are there for the duration.

Caryn Hartglass: Eric, thank you, this is very exciting work. Thank you for caring about the invertebrates.

Eric Lee-Mӓder: Thank you Caryn

Caryn Hartglass: You can find out more at xerces.org.

Transcribed by Suzanne Kelly, 10/13/2014

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