My research interests sit at the intersection between agricultural production and biodiversity conservation. The expansion and intensification of agriculture is one of the leading causes of biodiversity loss worldwide. At the same time, many of the services upon which agriculture depends are underpinned by diverse agro-ecosystems. When agro-ecosystems are managed poorly, the result is a feedback in which intensification of agriculture leads to a loss of biodiversity, ecosystem services, and increased yield gaps; a negative outcome for both biodiversity and agricultural productivity. Alternatively, ecological intensification of agriculture based on knowledge of the links between agricultural practices and biodiversity can create win-win scenarios. I am currently exploring a number of different areas related to this theme using tools from the molecular to the landscape level.
Landscape drivers of ecosystem services
Landscape simplification through agricultural intensification threatens both pollinators and natural enemies, key ecosystem services to agriculture. The objective of my research in this area is to determine how this simplification impacts the abundance and diversity of native bee pollinators and natural enemies in strawberry agroecosystems and to understand how a reduction in these services is expected to impact crop yield. Currently, I am using molecular markers to identify how landscape simplification impacts the phylogenetic diversity of pollinator communities. Along with an undergraduate mentee, I am exploring how resource scarcity in agricultural landscapes can reduce the body size of bees within species and the potential consequences for bee fitness. I am also interested in how mass flowering crops impact pollinator community dynamics and the yield of co-blooming crops.
Local drivers of ecosystem services
Because individual farmers and land managers often have little control of land use practices at the landscape scale that may be impacting ecosystem service providers on their farm, I am exploring the practice of planting native perennial wildflower strips to support pollinators and natural enemies. These wildflower strips are expected to increase parasitism rates of key crop pests and resources for native bees outside of the window of crop bloom. To better understand the potential costs and benefits of these strips for bees I am collaborating with Laura Figueroa to build a visitation network for the wildflower and bee species that also includes information on the potential transmission pathways for several bee pathogens.
Interactions between ecosystem services
Management for one ecosystem service is likely to have effects on many other aspects of the system. Ideally, these interactions are positive and synergistic where improvement in one area results in an increase in other areas, all of which improve the quantity and quality of crop yield. Although we hope that wildflower strip management will improve pollination and decrease pest pressure it is possible that the strips may be used as a resource by pests. More importantly, improved seed set due to increased pollination may increase crop damage from seed predators. However, pollination by bees is known to improve aspects of fruit quality such as firmness which may play an important role in reducing susceptibility to frugivorous pests such as Spotted Wing Drosophila. Alternatively, early damage from foliar herbivores may induce defenses and alter resource allocation within a plant negatively impacting pollinator preference. I am currently investigating these questions in the strawberry-wildflower management system.
Pollinators are responsible for the bulk of food production and although most research had investigated the role of pollinators in improving crop yield we know that pollination can also impact crop quality. I am currently investigating the role of bee pollination in improving anthocyanins, phenolics, sugar acid ratios and ultimately flavor profiles in wine grapes.
To read more about my research please see my Research Statement or my CV.