May 11, 2023
USDA honors ARS research entomologist

A U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) research entomologist is being honored for her work with insects as biological controls.

Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris, a USDA-ARS research entomologist, has been named a finalist for a 2023 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, also known as the Sammies, as an Emerging Leader for her entomology work.

Schmidt-Jeffris, who works with the ARS Temperate Tree Fruit and Vegetable Research Laboratory in Wapato, Washington, is being recognized for her pioneering work designing ways to use insects as biological controls for other bugs that damage crops, particularly apples and pears. The use of insects limits the need for some pesticides and lowers costs for farmers while protecting the environment.

ARS research entomologist Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris, left, checking to see how lacewings are doing as a biocontrol of aphids in an apple orchard in Okanogan County, Washington. On the right, lacewings eating aphids, a major pest of apples in Washington state. Photos by Erica Moretti, and Rebecca Schmidt-Jeffris.

Schmidt-Jeffris collaborates with orchard growers throughout the Pacific Northwest who are the producers of 70% of the country’s domestic apples — including 90% of the organic apples — and more than 90% of U.S. pears. By finding better ways to conserve natural predators of pests that damage fruit, Schmidt-Jeffris’ advances are saving growers money and reducing pesticide use.

For example, Schmidt-Jeffris’ work conserving predators of apple pest mites makes major contributions to a program that saves the apple industry $16.5 million annually.

Sometimes, this entomology work involves relocating insects from one orchard to another or dropping predators from drones.

Often, growers need to add more predators to their orchards via drones. Because most of what has been known about releasing insects as biocontrols comes from greenhouse studies, much of Schmidt-Jeffris’ work has been to figure out which biocontrol insects and methods don’t work well in orchards. One technique she is leading the way with involves whether dropping the predators from drones saves growers labor and time, which is critical in the large orchards of Washington.

She has learned through her scientific studies that mealybug destroyer beetles are usually not reliable controllers of mealybugs on apple trees in the orchard, though they have been popular for the job in greenhouses. She has found growers can use lacewings to control aphids.

Even better, Schmidt-Jeffris and her colleagues discovered that growers can use inexpensive cardboard tubes to catch earwigs in cherry orchards, where they are notably harmful, and transfer them to apple and pear orchards where they feast on pests without damaging those crops. Growers have enthusiastically been adopting this technique with its two-fisted benefit.

These are among the innovations that helped make Schmidt-Jeffris a Sammie award finalist. The Sammies are run by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which is the premier awards program honoring excellence and innovation in federal service.

“All too often growers have looked at insects as pests to be eliminated, but Schmidt-Jeffris sees complex inter-relations in which insects, growers and valuable orchard crops can all balance one another, and she can develop the kind of scientific road map growers can follow,” Simon Liu, ARS administrator, said in a news release. “Rebecca helps growers get the most value for their dollars spent and decreases wasted money on tactics that do not work.”

Liu also pointed out that Schmidt-Jeffris has taken on a leadership role within ARS, setting a “stellar example for other new Agricultural Research Service scientists, especially for women pursuing careers in STEM.”

In addition, as a category finalist, Schmidt-Jeffris is eligible for the People Choice Award which is voted on by members of the public. The public is encouraged to visit and vote for her once each day to show support for her work.

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