Student Research Spotlight - Karly Regan
Posted: July 8, 2016
Predacious bugs: An organic farmer’s best friend?
by Benjamin Czyzewski
A seedcorn maggot is enjoying a delicious corn seed in a peaceful field of organically grown crops. The maggot chows down without a care in the world: little does he know that danger lurks. Suddenly a horrifying beetle lunges out of nowhere to attack and eat the maggot, putting an end to the devastation that would have been caused by the pest.
“A corn field with many predators is ideal for an organic farmer. They’ll be able to successfully grow their crop without losing plants to insect damage,” says Karly Regan, a PhD student at Penn State University.
Regan is studying how weed and soil management can increase populations of predators that control pests of organic crops. In particularly, she is evaluating the impact of terminating cover crops by a "roll over" technique, rather than tilling them into the soil. Cover crops are planted post-harvest in the fall to prevent soil erosion and nutrient loss. Generally farmers will till cover crops into the soil prior to planting their cash crops, which could both reduce soil health and destroy the habitat for insect predators that may be overwintering in the soil.
“We will use a roller crimper, which looks like a roller used by road pavers, to roll down cover crops into mulch,” Regan explained. “We think that this mulch will provide habitat to potential predators over the winter and early in the growing season.”
Regan will be working with the Agronomy, Ecology, and Entomology departments at Penn State to try to improve insect pest management strategies for growers of organic corn. In addition to rolling cover crops, researchers are evaluating the impact of planting cover crops between rows of cash crops prior to harvest - this approach could allow for longer growing seasons and provide habitat for predators later in the season. The strategies will help organic growers reduce pest populations without using pesticides.
Multiple studies will be conducted to determine how effective these different approaches are to controlling pest populations. Regan will be measuring the number of pest insects, crop damage, and predator diversity in several different field conditions. She will also be observing the rate at which predation occurs by placing immobile wax worms, a vulnerable prey insect, in the field and documenting the amount of attacks on them over a certain period of time.
Regan hopes that her research will save organic farmers money and headaches by generating management strategies that will increase predatory bugs and decrease pest damage to crops. Karly’s research is part of a much larger project at Penn State that seeks to help organic farmers manage their crops sustainably.