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Field Tour Gets First-Hand Look at IPM and Pollinator Health in Mississippi

science policy field tour - cotton test plots

Participants in the ESA Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section’s Science Policy Field Tour in August sampled university cotton test plots for tarnished plant bug, Lygus lineolaris, a key pest in the Mid-Southern United States at Due West Farms, Glendora, Mississippi. (Photo credit: Robert K.D. Peterson., Ph.D.)

By Rayda Krell, Ph.D., and Melissa Willrich Siebert, Ph.D.

“Creating a pollinator protection program is like making gumbo,” said Andy Whittington, environmental programs coordinator at the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation. “You have to start with a good roux, and a good roux has two key ingredients: In this case it was the beekeepers and the farmers.”

Whittington kicked off the first morning of the Entomological Society of America Plant-Insect Ecosystems (ESA P-IE) Section’s Science Policy Field Tour, “Balancing Pest Management and Pollinator Health,” last month at the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation headquarters. Whittington and a panel of participants who were part of developing the Mississippi Honey Bee Stewardship Program explained how the program began. Mississippi was chosen as the location for ESA P-IE‘s first-ever science policy field tour based on a presentation by Jeff Harris, Ph.D., an extension and research professor in apiculture at Mississippi State University, at the ESA P-IE business meeting in 2016. Mississippi was one of the first states to take steps to create a pollinator protection program that addressed needs of both beekeepers and row-crop producers.

Whittington continued, “You can’t cook the roux too fast or you will burn it,” underlying the importance of cultivating relationships between all participants before launching the program. “Next, you add the holy trinity: onion, bell pepper, and celery—or, in the case of the Mississippi program, our extension entomologist, the state department of agriculture, and our state apiculturist.”

Whittington discussed how bringing these key groups and people together created the foundation for the Mississippi program. But, he noted that the comparisons to gumbo were similar in other ways, because just as each state and region has their own gumbo preferences (e.g., okra or no okra!), programs should be tailored to meet the needs of each state. In the end, everyone might not get exactly what they want, but the “recipe” needs to remain flexible so changes can be made as needed.

ESA P-IE field tour participants from 22 states and the District of Columbia met in Jackson, Mississippi, for the 2.5-day tour, August 22–24. The event brought together 25 ESA P-IE members from all levels and 25 invited non-entomologist stakeholders from federal and state public science agencies, nongovernmental organizations, beekeeping organizations, and crop-protection and commodity groups. The tour participants were deliberately diverse. A major goal of the tour was to bring together people with different perspectives on pollinator issues but allow them to learn together with hands-on experiences. P-IE Section leadership hoped that, by allowing diverse stakeholders to have a common experience, it would provide a foundation for future discussions.

For many participants, the tour was their first experience with large-scale agriculture. As the participants traveled more than 300 miles as part of the tour, they had the opportunity to understand the agricultural landscape from the hills to the delta.

The tour stops were chosen to represent different aspects of pollinator protection issues. The first day included a visit to the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation headquarters to learn about the origin of the Honey Bee Stewardship Program, an aerial application demonstration at a regional aerial applicator facility, and meeting with a farmer and his crop consultant to learn about Mississippi integrated pest management (IPM) and sampling cotton pests first-hand. The second day of the tour included stops at a pollinator conservation program site, in-field pest sampling in additional crops at the Mississippi State University Delta Research and Extension Center, and a meeting with a local beekeeper and visit to one of his bee yards.

Participants traveled together on a tour bus and used the time between stops to learn from each other about their work on pollinator protection efforts in their home states. The tour concluded with a discussion among participants about how to continue sharing ideas and best practices as other pollinator protection efforts are developed. Several themes emerged from the tour about the successful components of the Mississippi Honey Bee Stewardship Program:

  1. Build relationships. The importance of establishing personal relationships between the people involved was key. In Mississippi, the communication between farmers and beekeepers usually involves a personal meeting rather than any formal contracts. It was noted that a state like Mississippi that has a culture of hospitality might be especially poised to take on a program based on personal relationships.
  2. Invite all interested parties to the table. Everyone involved in the Mississippi program mentioned that it was important that all stakeholders were invited to participate in the development of the program. In Mississippi, most of the beekeepers are local and do not come from out of state, which was beneficial in their state for bringing everyone together.
  3. Stay at the table. Several presenters mentioned that developing the Mississippi program was not easy, and it was important to have a key organization, such as the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, which continued to bring people back together even when conversations were difficult. The scope of interests and ecosystems involved is complicated, and it should be recognized from an early stage that persistence will assure that all stakeholders are heard and their needs are acknowledged.
  4. Build awareness. Many participants in the Mississippi program stated that simply gaining better understanding of the needs of beekeepers and farmers on a personal level was enough to help them make changes in their management practices to accommodate the other parties.
  5. Use integrated pest management. The importance of IPM concepts in decision-making and good farmer relationships with crop consultants and extension specialists was frequently mentioned as an important component in building trust that pest-management actions are warranted.
  6. Remain flexible. The Mississippi program was developed with the knowledge that it will likely need to change as circumstances change. The program is not considered static, and the role of a key organizer, like the farm bureau, was cited as an important element for encouraging ongoing meetings and conversations.

Initial responses from participants conveyed that the tour experience was extremely valuable. Ray McAllister, Ph.D., of CropLife America said, “The selection of participants assured a great cross-pollination of perspectives and ideas.” Aimée Code of the Xerces Society similarly remarked, “I really enjoyed getting to meet such a diverse group of stakeholders.” Jane DeMarchi from the American Seed Trade Association echoed the comments about the value of having diverse participants: “It was probably the best tour I have been on. What was particularly valuable for me was to have so many experts on hand who could immediately answer such a wide range of questions.”

Many participants noted that the tour was a good model for how to engage diverse parties on challenging issues. This aspect of the tour was captured in a comment from graduate student in entomology at Michigan State University, Jacquelyn Albert: “I found the field tour to be an enormously unique and beneficial experience. The opportunity to experience these complex issues with experts from diverse backgrounds led to vibrant discussions and the formation of meaningful collaborations. As state-wide pollinator management and stewardship programs are formed throughout the country, it is vital to continue these kinds of events that allow for open discourse and deliberation from all sides of the pest management and pollinator issue.”

ESA P-IE is already discussing the possibility of future science policy field tours in other locations and perhaps addressing new topics. There was agreement from participants that having a scientific society as an organizational leader created an unbiased context for the event. It is new for sub-sections of ESA to take an active entomology advocacy role, but there seems to be broad acknowledgement that it is an appropriate role for a society to ensure that the work of its scientists is widely shared, especially where it can impact decision making on issues affecting the public.

Rayda Krell, Ph.D., is a research coordinator for the Backyard Integrated Tick Management Study at Western Connecticut State University. Email: Melissa Willrich Siebert, Ph.D., is an entomologist at Dow AgroSciences and president of the ESA P-IE Section. Email: Krell and Siebert were co-organizers for the ESA P-IE Science Policy Field Tour.

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