Courtesy Ben Engbers '20

Parasitic threat | Black vine weevils such as these pose a significant threat to a variety of crops vital to New York agriculture.

September 10, 2018

Student Spotlight on Ben Engbers: Researching a Sustainable Way to Control Pests

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While many Cornell students were off enjoying summer vacation away from Ithaca, Ben Engbers ’20 remained on campus to defend and improve the vitality of New York’s berry industry.

As a research assistant and project manager at Elson Shields Laboratory of Entomology, Engbers has dedicated the majority of his undergraduate career to demonstrating the efficacy of nematodes as a sustainable biocontrol for berry farms.

“Nematodes are a native, sustainable, and organic solution to a food security problem that is affecting New York state and the world,” Engbers said.

While Shields laboratory has studied the behavior and application of nematodes as pest control for over two decades, this summer, Engbers facilitated a specific project concerning the control of black vine weevil at Rulfs Orchard located five hours away in Peru, NY.

“My work this summer resulted in promising data that I am excited to see published and ultimately applied in the real world,” he said.

Black vine weevil is a formidable obstacle to crop growers worldwide and has been a significant detriment to the berry industry. Due to the parasitic weevil larva, commercial farms suffer plant death and decreased yield in strains of strawberries, nursery plants, alfalfa, and corn, resulting in notable economic loss.

In pursuit of a natural and sustainable solution to this local agricultural crisis, Engbers and peers in Shields lab have been studying the adequacy of nematodes as a multi-year biological control. These microscopic worms, native to the upstate New York area, effectively kill black vine weevil larva by infecting the host body and subsequently reproducing in the host body.

Engbers and team discovered that, when applied in tandem, two specific strains of nematode provide for optimal weevil annihilation. One species, Steinernema carpocapsae, persists in the top 7 cm of soil while Heterorhabditis bacteriophora, the second, occupies 8-20 cm underground. Each group functions in complement niches to diminish weevil populations.

However, what makes the nematode a truly intriguing and effective pest control model, is its sustainability, affordability, and ecological impact. A viable alternative to costly and toxic pesticides, nematodes are native, climate adaptive, and long lasting. With every increase in weevil population there is a mirrored increase in nematodes, resulting in an ecologically sustainable system. This means that a farmer can introduce a population of nematodes once and reap multiple years of pest protection.

Engbers’ project is a continuation of a study started in 2013 when a single application of nematodes was introduced at Rulfs Orchard in Peru. Five years since, the persistence levels of the nematodes are above 25 percent, a significant indication of durability. Additionally, there are no foreseeable environmental drawbacks. As a native organism, nematodes pose no invasive threat and require little to no maintenance by the farmers.

Engbers also performed research for Shields Lab at farm sites in Michigan and Texas to test the geographic adaptability of these specific nematodes. According to him, nematodes are a feasible solution to common agricultural pests and a future tool for farmers in upstate New York and across the globe.