Current Research Interests:
1. What are the mechanisms behind local vegetative diversification techniques that increase beneficial biodiversity on farms?
2. How much biodiversity is needed to provide substantial ecosystem services to crop production systems? My specific research experience is with natural pest control and pollination, however I am also interested in the links between additional services such as soil health, carbon storage, water quality, food safety, yield and livelihood.
3. How does a grower’s experience with farm diversification techniques influence management choices?
4. How does a grower’s position in the supply chain and land tenure influence management choices?
5. How do those choices influenced by Q3 and Q4 feed back into the ecosystem services they receive by biodiversity?
6. Is there a particular scale of farming operation that supports multifunctional services including many components of ecological, social and economic benefits?
7. How will climate change and associated changes in weather patterns affect Q3-7?
Recent Research Experience:
Vegetative diversity and ecosystem services
I began working in agroecosystems in 2011, in the Santa Cruz, Watsonville and Salinas growing regions of the CA central coast. Claire had been working with hedgerows and pollination services in Yolo Co. for a few years and shown that these local scale diversification techniques did change pollinator communities on farms. In the Central Coast growing region however, hedgerows have become a suspicious contributor to increased food safety risks [scientifically unsupported to date] and since 2006, have been removed from several farms. In addition, the primary crops grown in this area are strawberry and greens, and this production is very mobile. That is, the same crop is rarely grown in the same place from one year to the next and that parcel of land may be managed by a different grower each year. These two conditions made it apparent that permanent landscape modifications would not be feasible or attractive to many growers in the area. Instead, we chose to explore the effects of a farm-scale diversification technique that, in theory, is more under farmer control: crop diversification (polyculture).
Our work on pollination and natural pest control services to strawberries revealed that polyculture provides the same benefits as large amounts of surrounding natural habitat to boost pollinator richness and abundance, increasing the potential for yield gains. Work conducted by an undergraduate menthe of mine, Natalie Solares found that crop diversity was also associated with more natural enemies, fewer pests and less pest damage to strawberries.
I of course was excited to find that diversification of crops can boost important ecosystem services, however, from this work, I have realized that the story is much more complex than this. The feasibility of adopting polyculture and other diversification techniques is complicated and affected by many social and economic factors that we have yet to consider. This is the direction I would like to take my future research. See my list of interests above.
Climate and land use changes on bee diet and health
I am also currently coordinating three sub-projects associated with Neil Tsutsui, Todd Dawson and Cindy Looy on a multidisciplinary project exploring the effects of climate and land use change on the physiology of honey bees and the yellow-faced bumble bee Bombus Vosnesenskii. We are using museum specimens I have gathered from over 20 museum collections, ranging from year 1898 to present. We narrowed specimens to 3 urban and 3 rural/natural areas in CA to correlate the types of pollen in their diets (Cindy Looy’s team), pollution and water stress isotopes in the pollen and the bee bodies (Todd Dawson’s team) and genetics, pathogens and parasites (Neil Tsutsui’s team) with climate and urbanization variables.
Preliminary data shows that changes in the environment do leave a fingerprint on the physiology of the bees. More results to come, but in the meantime, this begs the question of how this will influence my diversification on farms work described above. How will we need to change our habitat diversification efforts to accommodate changes in water availability due to climate changes and accommodate the health of bees that will also change with more water stress and pollution? How will climate change influence the feasibility of adopting diversification techniques that are needed to support the beneficial insects that ensure our food production?
A long time ago, I tried to abandon my agricultural roots by fleeing my farming hometown to much bigger cities and a very far away country for my education. At UC Santa Cruz, I received my BSc. in Ecology and Evolution, specializing in co-evolutionary plant-insect interactions, though my Honor’s senior thesis measured the affect of black-tailed deer presence on mobile-nitrogen cycling in coastal chaparral. From there, I travelled to New Zealand to study some of the neatest plants on the planet: those that eat insects! I obtained my Graduate Diploma of Science from Victoria University of Wellington and my PhD from Lincoln University in Canterbury, where my field sites consisted of glacially isolated, alpine bogs in the Southern Alps. My thesis explored how small, isolated populations of carnivorous plants, which have been exposed to extremely long-term pollinator depauperate conditions, manage to reproduce. For carnivorous plants, this may be an even stickier situation, (pun intended), when those few pollinators that exist get trapped as prey.
My PhD work introduced me to the intricate mechanisms that plants can use to prevent self-fertilization and inbreeding depression. Surprisingly, I found that my study species, despite being pollinator dependent in Australia, were autonomously selfing up to 100% without inbreeding depression across 3 life stages (that I could detect). After thousands of years of isolation, these plants had worked out a way to reproduce without the aid of pollinators. In this case, it was actually better to eat the pollinators instead.
Although I had managed to get as far away from the agriculture as possible, through various unexpected collaborations, my interest in pollination services to crops was peaked. Here is a system, where in some cases, pollinators are so necessary that bees are being trucked by the millions across the United States and the world. On top of that, those bees are facing many threats that are decreasing stocks and increasing bee prices. How would farmers cope with this? In what ways could they increase naturally occurring, native bees on their farms so they wouldn’t have to rely on honey bees? Was this even possible? Coming from a family that grows almonds, a very pollinator dependent crop, I knew all too well the value of those pollinators, and the expense of their rental and their colony collapses. Building upon my experience with pollination biology and ecology in natural systems, I decided to tackle a system that in most cases is anything but natural. This brings me to my recent research experience and interests described in respective sections above.