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Keep the Good Bugs Down on the Farm

Keep the Good Bugs Down on the Farm header image
Farmscaping for beneficial insects.

Sitting on Gwendolyn Ellen's desk among the stacks of papers, grant proposals, and reference books is a silver dollar-sized black beetle with shiny antennae and fang-like mandibles. "Isn't he beautiful," she says with an enthusiasm that can't be faked.

Predatory ground beetles, like the Carabus on Ellen's desk, are beautiful—in their own way. They fill a niche in the agricultural landscape where they prey upon invertebrates, including many garden and farm pests. However, such beneficial insects may be absent from farms where vital habitat is missing or where improper use of pesticides has eradicated them.

"Just as it's important to preserve land for wildlife and bird populations, it's also important to create habitat for beneficial insects," Ellen said.

Paul Jepson photo by Lynn Ketchum.

Paul Jepson (with net) , director of OSU’s Integrated Plant Protection Center, reveals the life within a beetle bank during a farm tour on Sauvie Island. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

To help keep good bugs on Oregon farms, researchers at Oregon State University are working with farmers to encourage insects that pollinate crops or keep pests in check. The OSU Farmscaping for Beneficials Project helps farmers work their land in a more sustainable manner, which can mean everything from using fewer pesticides to changing soil tilling practices. The researchers offer options that can be individually tailored to each farm, said Ellen, who manages the OSU project. Options could include growing a hedgerow on the edge of a field or establishing a beetle bank.

Beetle bank?

Beetle banks are strips of land between cultivated rows that are left untilled from year to year. Their matted and decomposing grasses provide hiding places for many beneficial insects. "The bank acts as a beetle hotel, providing a dry, undisturbed environment where predacious ground beetles can overwinter," said Paul Jepson, director of OSU's Integrated Plant Protection Center, the project's home base. In the spring, the beetles emerge from the banks and disperse into the field, actively searching for prey. Without such refuge, beneficial beetles can take longer to appear in the spring and may lag behind pest populations.

Gwendolyn Ellen photo by Lynn Ketchum.

OSU entomologist Gwendolyn Ellen studies the beetle bank at OSU’s Hyslop Research Lab where the 100-foot-long mound of tangled grasses teems with tiny wildlife. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

"Farming is very dynamic," said Ellen. Fields can change multiple times through a season. And because large tracts of farmland can isolate crop fields from the natural habitats for beneficial insects, places that are purposefully built to provide stable refuge for good bugs can play an important role in a farm's vitality and success.

"Without drastically changing how they grow their crops, both organic and conventional farmers can create specific insect habitat that does not currently exist on most farms," said Jepson.

Integrated Plant Protection Center

Published in: Food Systems, Ecosystems