Philip Fanning studies a small parasitic wasp that finds small flies that burrow into blueberries and lays it's eggs inside them. This is a method of pest control. (Courtesy of University of Maine)

With its appetite for berry flesh, the spotted-wing drosophila has drastically impacted the wild blueberry crop in Maine, and other berry industries throughout the country. Currently, the pest is controlled primarily through the use of insecticides, of which there are few effective organic options, leaving organic blueberry farmers with few options to manage the economic impact of the pest on their harvest. 

Philip Fanning, assistant professor of agricultural entomology at the University of Maine, leads a team of scientists across the country looking to develop solutions for organic fruit farmers to control the pest in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner. The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded Fanning and his team nearly $3 million for their research on the organic management of spotted-wing drosophila in fruit crops.

“Organic farmers generally focus on the use of natural or biological methods to control pests in the fields, and that is a focus of this project,” Fanning says. “Our team’s aim is to integrate more biological control options into existing practices and develop more decision-aid tools to ensure that they are economically feasible.”

Fanning’s team will carefully collaborate with stakeholders to develop and expand monitoring for spotted-wing drosophila, promote beneficial insects in the fields that can combat the pest like the wasp, Ganaspis brasiliensis, which is a newly released biological control agent, and develop a training program to implement the organic management strategies. The project will also host undergraduate students throughout the summer to develop knowledge of pest management research and learn about careers in organic agriculture-related fields.

“Higher education in STEM plays a critical role in training the next generation of professionals, and experiential learning experiences can have a key role in getting students interested in research and outreach,” Fanning says. “Another exciting part of this project is that it will include a Research and Learning Experience for undergraduate students. Through this, students will develop knowledge of scientific research, outreach and analytical skills while learning about careers in organic agriculture-related fields,” Fanning says.

Fanning’s project is one of 18 awarded grants by NIFA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, which funds research, education and Extension projects to improve yields, quality and profitability for producers and processors who have adopted organic standards. 

The award started Sept. 1 and will run through Aug. 31, 2025.