Transforming Michigan’s agricultural landscapes – Do prairie strips diversify insect communities in squash production?: Reflections from an LTER Fellow

Jen Zavalnitskaya is a graduate student in Zsofia Szendrei’s lab in Michigan State University’s Department of Entomology. Her research interests include plant-insect interactions, insect behavior, integrated pest management, and agroecology

One of Jen’s areas of research focuses on the overwintering biology of asparagus beetles and how sustainable control measures can be developed to manage their populations.

By the time I began my PhD, I knew I was passionate about promoting the biodiversity of agricultural landscapes. From my masters research in Zsofia Szendrei’s lab, I learned that the ways farmers manage their fields plays an important part in insect pest dynamics. However, the local landscape plays a large role as well. This creates a challenge, because though farmers can control what happens on their own fields, landscapes are managed by many landowners and commodities, not just one person. So began my process of trying to understand – how can we transform the scale in which we manage our agricultural landscapes?

To explore this question, I connected with Doug Landis at the Kellogg Biological Station LTER (KBS LTER). Doug mentioned his research in prairie strips, a conservation practice that involves establishing prairie plant species amongst agricultural crop plantings. These prairie strips not only provide the resources available to insects on a farm scale, but change the composition of the entire agricultural landscape. He let me know that little is known of the effects of prairie strips on insect population dynamics, very much less insect pest dynamics. Additionally, these strips have mostly been used in field crops like wheat, corn and soy and have not been implemented in other crop systems like vegetables. After finding out that prairie strips were already being implemented as part of the Main Cropping System Experiment at the KBS LTER, I thought this would be a great place to explore my question.

To learn more, I attended the All-Scientist meeting in 2021, an all-day meeting with other researchers, faculty and graduate students to share research ideas. During the meeting, I was inspired by all the different research happening at the KBS LTER- rain exclusion experiments, microbial and soil community surveys, and even farmer perception surveys regarding climate change. One of my favorite activities of the day was participating in the organized breakout sessions, specifically, the Farmscapes for Biodiversity and What would you ask a farmer session. In these discussions, I was able to share ideas with other scientists about how we can promote biodiversity in agriculture and communicate these findings to the farmers managing agricultural land. These sessions really got me thinking about two aspects of my initial question- how do we incorporate biodiversity into already monoculture dominated landscapes and how do we communicate our findings effectively to farmers?

Jen’s poster for the 2021 KBS LTER All Scientist Meeting.

As a KBS LTER Graduate Fellow, my work will use existing prairie strips to explore how they change insect community dynamics and biodiversity in squash farms. Beneficial arthropods that are often essential for ecosystem services, such as pollination, have been found to be dependent on more complex landscapes with higher proportions of non-crop habitat. Although numerous studies have found that an increase in natural habitat surrounding or within a crop field causes declining pest abundance and higher pollinator richness, there is little knowledge of how prairie strips influence the composition of vegetable pest and pollinator communities in vegetable systems. In my experimental study, I am planning on comparing insect communities on Cucurbita pepo, zucchini squash, at varying distances from established prairie strips to understand how insect communities on zucchini change over space and time in the presence of prairie strips.

In regards to my second question- how do we communicate our findings effectively to farmers, I am incorporating a chapter in my PhD thesis focusing on how sociodemographic factors and pollinator conservation education efforts are influencing the implementation of pollinator conservation strategies into organic squash management throughout Michigan. To do this, I plan on conducting farmer surveys across Michigan to better understand how farmers are making pollinator management decisions. By learning more about farmers’ decision-making processes, researchers and extension agents can better implement this information to increase use of these practices. The connections and conversations I had at the KBS LTER All Scientist meeting helped me realize my interest in understanding how farmers make pollination conservation decisions.

While I have not yet began collecting data for this study, I am excited to get started this summer! Based on previous findings, I predict that we will find richer and more abundant herbivore and pollinator communities within prairie strips, and richness will decline as squash plants are further from the strip. Incorporating prairie strips into Michigan’s landscapes has the potential to change the composition of insect communities by providing additional resources. However, understanding these implications is crucial before they are widely implemented into state-wide farming practices. Findings from this study will help inform Michigan farmers, stakeholders, and researchers of the role prairie strips play on ecosystem services and disservices provided by insects in vegetable systems like squash production.