Two Entomology post-doctoral researchers honored with USDA NIFA fellowships

One’s work will make habitat for bees safer, while the other will manipulate plant odors to confuse insect pests or encourage their natural enemies.

Left, Andrea Glassmire and right, Kelsey Graham.
Left, Andrea Glassmire and right, Kelsey Graham.

Not one but two post-doctoral researchers in Michigan State University’s Department of Entomology have been selected for 2019 fellowships by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Awarded annually to post-docs from around the country, the program was launched in 2010 to help develop the next generation of research, education and extension professionals who will lead agriculture into the future by solving current and future societal challenges. This year, MSU secured seven of the 71 awards granted to post-docs.

Andrea Glassmire has been awarded $155,000 to delve deeper into an accepted principle of sustainable pest management: increasing plant biodiversity on farms will decrease pest problems. She is studying the mostly overlooked role of diversity in plant odors and the influence of combinations of odors emitted by neighboring plants. Glassmire hypothesizes that these blends of odors influence plant and insect interactions from the start, when insects are searching out favorable plants. Whether the insect is a pest or natural enemy that can provide biocontrol of pests, better understanding the influence of crop odor diversity on which insects will visit or colonize plants can improve pest management strategies.

As part of assistant professor Will Wetzel’s lab, Glassmire will work with multiple tomato varieties with differing odor profiles to determine their effect on the behavior of a key pest, the tobacco hornworm and its natural enemies. She will organize wind tunnel, lab and field experiments to examine host preferences of colonizing hornworms and natural enemies by manipulating monocultures and polycultures of tomato varieties based on their chemical dissimilarity.

“Our results should indicate the specific combination of odor cues emitted by diverse crop neighborhoods that are important for host-plant detection,” said Glassmire. “The idea is to help growers create odor diversity in their field that will prevent insect pests from finding crop plants, dissuade insect pests from colonizing crop plants once found, or attract the natural enemies of insect pests.”

Growers and plant breeders will use this information to develop “in-the-bag” seed mixtures of varieties that differ only in odor traits that mediate pest attack.

“I am so excited to be a recipient of the NIFA fellowship,” said Glassmire. “My professional goals are to merge fundamental and applied concepts in chemical ecology to improve agriculture’s sustainability and reduce reliance on pesticides. This grant will provide the opportunity for me to develop an independent agroecology research program and for me to develop as a mentor through engaging undergraduate students in research.”

Kelsey Graham’s research addresses a concern about pollinator plantings: are they an oasis or a possible pesticide trap for bees? Graham will receive $165,000 to study wildflower plantings intended to support and attract pollinators of blueberries.

Pollinators are essential for optimizing yields. Both managed honey bees and wild bees provide pollination services by visiting flowers and transferring pollen between plants, which eventually leads to fruit. Wild bees are particularly efficient at moving pollen, which is one reason why blueberry growers have increasingly been trying to attract wild bees to their farms.

“One way to do this is to put in pollinator habitat,” said Graham. “In blueberries, this often means setting aside a small parcel of land adjacent to the crop and seeding it with wildflowers to attract wild bees.”

Such plantings have been shown to increase wild bee diversity and abundance and increase crop yield. However, the proximity of these pollinator plantings to active pest management (pesticide sprays) could put bees at risk of pesticide exposure, mainly due to pesticide drift. Pesticides have been implicated in poor bee health, so it is critical to understand if these pollinator plantings pose an increased risk to bees.

Based in the lab of professor Rufus Isaacs, Graham will analyze bee collected pollen and flowers for pesticides residues, comparing sites with and without pollinator plantings. She will also sample for wild bees to see which species are most attracted to these habitat enhancements. Her efforts will include testing strategies growers can use to decrease pesticide residues in pollinator plantings, such as using drift reduction technology or changing the placement of these plantings.

“I’m really excited to receive this fellowship and to continue working with blueberry growers,” said Graham. “We know very little about pesticide exposure in wild bees, so I’m eager to help fill this knowledge gap and work towards solutions for reducing risks to bees through sustainable agriculture practices.”

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