Human Perspectives Add Value to Entomological Research

Authors: Molly Sayles, Robert Orpet, and Louie Nottingham

This post highlights the work of researchers funded through the BIOAg Program, a competitive grants program administered by CSANR, created to stimulate research, extension and education investments by WSU scientists and to advance the development, understanding, and use of biologically-intensive, organic and sustainable agriculture in Washington State.

You are at the grocery store in the produce section. Pears are in season, so you go over to pick a few out – maybe they will elevate your next charcuterie board. After inspecting a few, you grab pears that appear to be pristine, symmetrical in shape and with smooth, unsullied skin. These are worth your money.

You don’t really think about every behind-the-scenes decision that went into producing the perfect pears for you. You recognize differences between organic and non-organic, making your choice accordingly, but specifications on production are not communicated in the “Bartlett Pears, $1.20/lb” sign. The reality is that each management decision pear growers make affects the fruit you enjoy.

Pears in rows of a carton
Figure 1: Pears with black pear psylla damage. Photo: Cody André

We, the Pear Insects Lab at WSU, are fascinated by the decision-making processes and their impacts on the pear industry. As entomologists, we are often trained to think on a small, sometimes minute scale when it comes to agriculture, but we see the value in incorporating humans into the equation as well.

Pear psylla is the most important pear pest in the Pacific Northwest. The immature stage feeds on pear trees, excreting honeydew, a sugary substance that drips onto the fruit. This results in aesthetic damage that downgrades the pears and ultimately reduces grower profit. In Wenatchee, WA, where our team is based, pear psylla is primarily controlled with “broad-spectrum” pesticides, chemicals that indiscriminately kill all insects. This type of management is expensive and not reliably effective.

Integrated pest management (IPM) is a management strategy that minimizes insect damage to crops, while maximizing grower profit and contributing to environmental sustainability. It centers around minimizing broad-spectrum products and instead aims to build populations of beneficial predatory insects that provide free biological control services.

Close up of an earwig on leaf, eating
Figure 2: An earwig, an important pear psylla predator, feasts on a psylla nymph on our desk. Photo: Cody André

Our team’s projects explore the effectiveness of IPM for the pear orchards of Wenatchee Valley. In general, we find that orchards that practice IPM produce similar quality pears to conventionally managed orchards, while saving growers at least $400/acre in cost of pesticides. Sounds like a good deal, right? Interestingly, Wenatchee pear growers are reluctant to adopt IPM practices, despite their apparent benefits and other pear growing regions’ successes.

Our project, funded in 2022 by the CSANR BIOAg Program, examines roadblocks to IPM implementation in Wenatchee Valley pears. We believe that the best way to understand grower perspectives is to speak with them directly, so our primary method is interviews. So far, we have interviewed 12 pear pest management decision makers in the Wenatchee Valley and two from outside regions.

From our preliminary results, it appears that factors for growers adopting pear IPM practices are a complex balance of forces including trust, fear, and knowledge. Exploring these influences is currently giving us a richer understanding of the perceptions and decision-making processes of the pear industry.

In the Wenatchee Valley, pear growers rely on crop consultants, who are often employed by wholesale chemical distributors, to make management recommendations. Therefore, to adopt IPM, the associated crop consultant must be on board. Pear growers and crop consultants often use personal knowledge and peer recommendations to make management decisions, while also incorporating information from university research and Extension services.

Many interviewees stated that they are not convinced that pear psylla IPM works in the Wenatchee Valley as opposed to other regions, such as Hood River, OR. They cite possible reasons for differences in IPM adoption in other pear growing regions to be things like temperature, tree variety, and monoculture issues. This issue underscores the importance of continuing to demonstrate IPM efficacy in the region.

Our plans for this year include conducting interviews with pear pest management decision makers in major pear growing regions in WA, OR, CA, and BC. This may provide us with insight into differences in management practices and IPM adoption between regions.

Through the first year of this project, we have learned how important human perceptions are for us to have a holistic understanding of the pear industry. Now, when we check out pears at the grocery store, we are reminded of the complex system of decision making behind each piece of fruit.


2 comments on "Human Perspectives Add Value to Entomological Research"
  1. Beginning in the 1970s California developed a rebellious cadre of independent pest control advisors PCAs, steeped in IPM, biological, and Organic approaches to management. These belonged to AAIE (Association of Applied Insect Ecologists)
    These folks are now long in the tooth, retired or passed on. These pioneers have not been replaced by a younger generation of independents. Owing to high liability risk, income security, etc., younger practitioners choose employment with large ag chem companies. This thwarts the adoption of IPM solutions such as that you highlight in this article.
    How might we reinvigorate the independent PCA movement?

    1. Hi Thomas, thanks for the comment. I love the phrasing “rebellious cadre”. At least a couple of those rebels made their way to WA and I know were leaders in the industry when areawide codling moth mating disruption was being phased in, but indeed a younger generation of independents is scarce. Towards your question, starting from a different area… many of the current and emerging industry leaders interested in IPM that regularly partner with the university worked at WSU, got degrees here, or both. Their on-the-job experience gave them background to “speak the language” of IPM and bring it to their large operations. However, many of the consultants and growers we work with have never taken an entomology or IPM course and lack the background to start on the same page as us. On the other hand, they do know a lot of other things that we as researchers are not trained about, so we need to share knowledge in both directions!

      Though I would like to see the independent PCA movement reinvigorated, it’s understandably hard for the younger generation for the reasons you mention. Perhaps within the current framework, greater attention in the university in coursework and in job training or certificate programs could help members of the industry “learn the language”. Recently, there was a biocontrol tour organized in our region (described in this article: which brought together national experts with local industry. I think this was an influential event, and more meetings like this would be fruitful.

      Consolidation could be an advantage sometimes. In the Wenatchee Valley, we see many mid-sized growers that are serviced by many different consultants. My team has hypothesized that areawide adoption of pear IPM would greatly reduce the pear psylla problem here ( but it is a challenge to get many people to adopt IPM at once. We’ve learned on our project that pear operations often differ in Oregon, where many acres could be controlled by one manager filling the role of the consultant, and if that manager is behind IPM, then you can have a mini-areawide implementation from one mind. Understanding variation in the structure of decision-making is one topic of our current holistic research program in pear IPM.

      Thanks again for the comment and I hope you find some of these ideas interesting towards your question.

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