Scientific Research to Advance Applied Agroecology

Blue Dasher Farm combines multidisciplinary skill sets to develop sustainable farm management systems that use biodiversity as a tool and are based on the basic biology, behavior and ecology of organisms and communities associated with agroecosystems. Peer-reviewed science is published in the primary literature, and is transferred directly to wide breadth of stakeholders. To accomplish these complex and challenging research goals, Blue Dasher Farm applies their extensive skills in genetics, physiology, taxonomy, ecology and applied land and pest management. Successful farm management and conservation of ecosystem services by biological communities depends on the interactions that focal organisms have with other aspects of the agroecosystem. For example, ecosystem services like pollination, pest management, and biologically driven nutrient recycling are usually most successful when research is coordinated with other disciplines. Blue Dasher Farm’s main inter-related research themes are 1) understanding how biodiversity and trophic interactions affect conservation of services provided by healthy food webs within agroecosystems, 2) predicting the ecological safety of new technologies for pest and farm management, and 3) gaining a better understanding of how biological communities (especially within the soil) are structured and contribute to ecosystem services and farm performance. Baseline data in these areas are essential (and often lacking) for policies and practices to be put in place that increase the sustainability of food production.

Initial Research Themes

Harnessing services provided by complex food webs and biodiversity, and developing tools that can be applied to functioning food production systems. We believe that critical ecological processes have been largely removed from our agroecosystems, and this is to blame for producing many of the problems currently faced by agriculture. Increasing biodiversity in and near cropland in ways that foster ecosystem services provided by insects (pollination, biological control of pests, dung recycling, etc.) is one of our key research interests. This research is tied to understanding which resources beneficial insects and other biology in the system requires both locally and at the landscape level, and forming creative ways to incorporate these resources back into crop- and range-land while promoting soil health and farm productivity. In large part, these resources are tied to biodiversity and vegetation associated with farmland. Techniques applied by Blue Dasher Farm to accomplish these programs include qPCR, ELISA, biochemical, and microscopic approaches to unravel food webs, spatial approaches for studying the regional and landscape level effects on local processes, and network analyses for understanding community-level processes and their contributions to agroecology. We are positioned to not only address whether conservation efforts like cover cropping, intercropping, and managing field margins conserve beneficial species, but also at identifying the mechanisms for how these practices work.

Ecological safety of pesticide-based management. Rapidly evolving pest and farm management technologies require our ability to understand and proactively assess the relative risks and benefits of new tools; these risks are inherently linked to how agroecosystems are managed. We have programs designed to evaluate the ecological risk posed by neonicotinoid insecticides, pesticidal RNAi, and other pesticides to non-target organisms (arthropod communities, honey bees and other pollinators, and predators) and the environment. The chronic and sublethal effects associated with pesticide use in agriculture escape detection by current regulatory frameworks, and we are poised to test whether these unanticipated effects have implications for biodiversity and agroecosystem functioning and long-term farm profitability. Techniques employed to conduct these risk assessments include meta-analysis for exploring cross-study trends in the literature, genetic and immunoassay techniques for detecting molecular markers associated with transgenes, network analysis for identifying how pesticides affect food webs, genomic analysis of non-target species, and traditional toxicological assays.

Rangeland ecology. Pastureland represents a major habitat that offers opportunities to promote insect conservation, including pollinators. Dung insect communities provide an essential service to promoting plant diversity and pasture quality, but there is little known on how herd management and habitat and landscape diversity affect local dung communities and their function. Working with colleagues in landscape ecology, insect behavior, economics, rangeland ecology, livestock management, and parasitology, we are valuating the services of dung removal for cattle operations. Also, Blue Dasher Farm is involved in a major, multi-disciplinary, national project to examine the effects of regenerative grazing strategies on carbon sequestration, soil health, and promoting biodiversity. In addition to surveying arthropod communities in these systems, we will specifically focus on how multi-paddock grazing affects services like pollination, pest management, and dung recycling on rangelands across North America.

Honey bee and pollinator conservation. Numerous factors currently threaten pollinators (with an emphasis on managed honey bees), including diseases, pests, pesticides, and lack of forage. As mentioned above, Blue Dasher Farm is committed to investigating ways to diversify agroecosystems in ways that promote pollinator diversity and function while simultaneously reducing nutritional stress and pesticide exposure that contribute to pollinator declines. Specifically, we are examining how cropland in the landscape affects honey bee and native pollinator community abundance and physiology, working with agronomists and seed dealers to develop new crop rotations that are pollinator friendly, investigating the benefits of conservation strips in pollinator performance. Additionally, we are developing predatory mites as a solution to the Varroa mite problem in honey bee hives. Pollinator conservation cannot be attained if this issue is siloed, and Blue Dasher Farm strives to link pollinator services to other ecosystem services provided by biodiversity (soil processes, dung removal, biological control, etc.).