Southwestern Arizona - Summer 1992 – a diffuse, white cloud hovers above the vegetable fields stretching across the valley engulfing the traffic that is moving along the freeway. Cars and trucks emerge on the other side, windshield wipers flapping frantically.

At the same time in downtown Phoenix, a woman steps outside onto the campus of South Mountain Community College into what looks like a blizzard of swirling snow.

“Those white clouds are whiteflies, billions and billions of them,” says Peter Ellsworth, pointing at the images on his laptop screen. “They would gum up your windshield, and people had to wear masks to be able to breathe.”

When Ellsworth, now director of the University of Arizona's (UA) Arizona Pest Management Center (APMC), started as an entomologist at the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, just a year before what he calls a plague of biblical proportion, he and his team were facing “a nearly impossible pest management situation,” as he describes it.

Whiteflies,Bemisia tabaci, which actually are relatives of aphids, not flies, come in different strains called biotypes and are feared as agricultural pests across the world.

The B-biotype was introduced into the U.S. in the late 1980s and invaded Arizona in the early 1990s, displacing the native A-biotype in a matter of a few years, ravaging vegetable and cotton fields.

The whiteflies secrete honeydew, a sticky substance that gums up the cotton fibers and provides a breeding ground for mold.

“It pushed buyers away from even considering Arizona-grown cotton,” Ellsworth says, and put the entire industry at risk.

The whitefly epidemic marked the beginning of what would become an exemplary effort to solve the problem through a highly systematic approach combining interdisciplinary research, strategic vision, and effective outreach.

Pushed by the APMC, the concept of integrated pest management, or IPM, has resulted in dramatic improvements that earned the center’s team the Gold Tier Shining Star Award from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The competitive “PestWise” awards highlight extraordinary commitments to IPM that result in improvements in human health and the environment.

The award recognizes the APMC for implementing IPM in school programs impacting 390,841 students in Arizona by reducing pests and pesticide risks to students, teachers, and staff.

APMC also was lauded for achievements of IPM in a public housing program and the Arizona Cotton IPM program which has dramatically reduced pesticide use and saved growers more than $25 million per year.

The award comes under the EPA’s Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program, whose goal is to work with communities and stakeholders to help them improve their pest control practices.

“Our mission is to connect scientific research with the community to build programs that minimize risk to people, property, resources and the environment,” says Ellsworth, who also is Arizona’s IPM coordinator.

“That's the essence of Integrated Pest Management.”

For example, the center's research and education programs have helped Arizona's cotton growers, who contribute 9,000 jobs and $700 million to the state's economy, to eliminate more than 1.6 million pounds of insecticides in 2011 alone.  

The center's IPM efforts did more than just bring Arizona cotton back from the brink of extinction.

“Few people realize that we have the highest yields of cotton per acre in the world,” Ellsworth says, adding that Arizona produces nearly twice as much cotton on a per-acre basis than anywhere else in the U.S.

“We implemented programs that over 10 years cut the number of pesticide spray applications from nine per growing season to one,” Ellsworth says. “Those integrated programs span the entire pest spectrum that growers face. Now growers spray on average the equivalent of a can of soda on a football field-sized area, spread over the entire season from March to October.”

In addition to reducing the number of sprays, farmers were encouraged to switch from broad-spectrum insecticides to more specific ones that don’t harm mammalian species – including humans – and are more selective to the pest while sparing beneficial insects such as pollinators.

At the same time, the center’s strategies have saved growers about $388 million, when adjusted for inflation, and prevented 19 million pounds of pesticides from entering the environment.

“Oftentimes, growers find themselves going back and forth in a constant struggle against pests,” Ellsworth says. “To also see this kind of stability is important for them.”

APMC is part of the UA's Cooperative Extension Program, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ mandate to distribute new knowledge and best practices in farming and ranching to those working in agriculture.

Ellsworth says, “We're not just creating science, and we’re not just teaching. It's about measuring change. It’s different from a classroom; if you followed every student you ever taught in a classroom 10 years later and asked, ‘Did they change their behavior as a result of teaching them something?’ – that is more akin to what we do in extension. We have long-term relationships with the community.”

IPM is not just for agriculture but for urban environments as well. APMC’s Community IPM team has helped Arizona's participating schools – 587 schools in 41 school districts with more than 390,000 students – to reduce pesticide applications an average of 71 percent and pest complaints by 78 percent.

A pilot program of the Community IPM team currently works with two Tucson schools, Esperero Canyon Middle School and Orange Grove Middle School, as well as two schools in the Phoenix area.

“We offer them a full program evaluating the environment inside the buildings and outside, on how to prevent invasion of the interior environment as well as working with our turf and horticulture specialists to look at the landscape and the grounds,” Ellsworth says. 

Sustainable pest management strategies start with the landscape around buildings, as Ursula Schuch, horticultural extension specialist and professor in the UA's School of Plant Sciences explains:

“Plants and buildings interact. Vines, for example, or a tree overhanging a rooftop, can serve as conduits for pests like rodents. We work with the personnel in charge of both the inside and outside school environments to help them reduce or eliminate exposure of students, staff and visitors to pesticides.”

Other examples are proper pruning or conscientious water harvesting techniques:

“A tree’s ability to fight off pests and diseases strongly depends on how well it is being cared for,” Schuch says. “A tree that is chronically under watered or chronically overwatered will weaken and become more susceptible to infestations from pests and disease organisms.”

Schuch says the center's goal is to serve as the “one-stop shopping center” for sustainable strategies in inside and outside pest management.

Says Ellsworth, “When we go to a school, we suggest solutions to make the landscaping, the playgrounds, the ball fields, the aesthetics of their outward appearance much better, safer, and more sustainable.”

“We are working directly with the teachers, the custodial staff and the kitchen staff to teach them that there is an integrated pest management way to minimize those risks.”

Basil Callimanis, director of facilities for the Catalina Foothills School District, oversees one high school, two middle schools, four elementary schools, one early learning center and one administration building.

“We did a survey of our outside grounds, talked to our pest control people and the grounds keepers, Callimanis says. “Ursula suggested easy opportunities to implement rainwater harvesting and proper pruning procedures.”

In some cases, APMC's integrated pest management efforts have prompted schools to spin off a science curriculum inspired by sustainable practices, such as rainwater harvesting or desert landscaping. At the early learning center, a swarm of bees coming through the campus on its search for a new nest site, first sparked fear among children and parents.

“But after consulting with the experts, we told them the bees would not pose a hazard and move on after a day or two,” Callimanis says. “And that is exactly what happened. For the children, it turned out to be a great opportunity to learn about bees.”

“We try to be as green as we can,” he adds. "Even before this collaboration, we replaced all our cleaning products with natural alternatives. Now we are planting native vegetation adapted to our desert environment, and we have minimized the amount of pesticides and insecticides. Our vendors were very happy, and told us, ‘You’re on the right track.' I look differently at our campuses now. This collaboration has worked out very well.”  

(Note: visit the Arizona Pest Management Center website at http://ag.arizona.edu/apmc/.)