Hold the Bug Spray

The Potato Leafhopper is a serious pest that damages numerous crops. Summer Fellow Jamie Faselt is exploring natural alternatives to chemical pesticides to help farmers control the insect.

Cory Straub, Associate Professor of Biology, is working with Faselt and other students to research the effects of polyculture (growing multiple plant types together) and naturally occurring predatory insects on the leafhopper.

“I am passionate about conservation, sustainability, and ecology,” says Faselt. “This directly applicable research experience is invaluable to me. I am so grateful that Ursinus College provides students with the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research. This is very important to me as I plan to pursue a PhD and continue ecological research.”

Natural Pest Control

When Straub walks out into fields of rolling alfalfa he notices the smallest things. Footsteps cause certain insects to scatter, among them, the tiny and very destructive leafhopper. This movement is significant because the more they hop from plant to plant, the more likely they are to meet up with a predator. And that, it turns out, is a good thing because it eventually could mean using fewer pesticides to control the leafhopper.

Faselt is working with six other students at Northern Star Farm in Trappe, Pa. They are studying alfalfa, a main feed crop for cattle.  “We are examining alternative methods with the goal of eliminating or reducing farmers’ reliance on chemical pesticides,” says Faselt. “The potato leafhopper is a pest of alfalfa and farmers spray harmful pesticides to control the leafhopper populations. The research I am doing this summer is unique and exciting because I get to be out in the world, working to ultimately reduce pesticides and foster a healthier environment.”

Straub’s fieldwork in Pennsylvania, and with colleagues abroad, has helped him study how planting grass­es with alfalfa has the potential to reduce leafhopper abundance and damage to alfalfa.  “Leafhoppers find grasses repulsive, and planting repulsive plants with their preferred food causes them to move, and in doing so encounter predators more often,” Straub says. “The idea is so simple–if you move more as a pest you will get eaten–but its relevance for agriculture has not yet been explored.”

This movement-risk hypothesis has been studied in natural ecosystems, for instance, when elk move about to look for food they are more likely to be attacked by a wolf. But the concept has potential value for pest management in agro-ecosystems.

Research Opportunities

The Ursinus Summer Fellows project, says Straub, allows his students to develop a deeper appreciation for sustainable agriculture while gaining valuable experience in field research. Straub recently received extra support for his research with a $146,445 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Jamie Faselt (l) and Phoenixia Rene round up leafhoppers.Jamie Faselt (l) and Phoenixia Rene round up leafhoppers.The research involves plots of regular alfalfa, a possibly resistant strain of alfalfa, and a mixture of ‘resistant’ alfalfa and orchard grass. The resistant strain should be less appealing to the leafhopper and the alfalfa-grass mixture should have the fewest leafhoppers. Faselt and the other students ‘sweep’ the field to measure the number of leafhoppers in each plot. Their guess? The leafhoppers will move more in the resistant and mixed plots, becoming more vulnerable to insect predators that naturally occur in the field.

Other students working on the project are Damian Schell, Michael Melchiorre, Matthew Scott, Kimberly Realbuto and Phoenixia Rene. IN addition to the Summer Fellows program, their work is supported by Straub’s USDA grant and the HHMI FUTURE program. Straub, Faselt and Rene will present their results at the Entomological Society of America’s annual conference in Portland, Oregon this coming November.

The Ursinus Summer Fellows program is an eight-week opportunity for some 70 students to work with a faculty mentor on an independent research project or creative project on or off campus. Fellows will present their research in a campus symposium July 25.