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Faculty Q&A: Dr. Elizabeth Benton

In each edition of The Log, we talk to a faculty member about their work, love of natural resources, and what they are excited about right now. In the most recent edition, we featured Dr. Elizabeth Benton, a forest health outreach specialist.

Benton earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Mobile, a master's from the University of South Alabama and her PhD from the University of Tennessee. She studies forest insects and diseases, insecticide policy, toxicology, and environmental risk, as well as pollinator habitats and health. 

Benton said she and her family enjoy being outdoors, hiking, camping and gardening. Married for 16 years, she has two children, Violet, 12, and Russ, 10.

You worked with insecticide use to conserve hemlock trees in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. How are the hemlocks doing? Unfortunately, thousands of hemlocks have died because of the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid. However, we are able to preserve many trees using the insecticide imidacloprid. One imidacloprid soil application can protect a hemlock for seven or more years, and we are now using an optimized dosing method that a colleague and I developed. This is a very efficient way of providing very specific insecticide dosing based on the size of each tree. The National Park Service and three state forestry agencies are implementing this method on thousands of acres of hemlock resources.

You also look at the environmental risks of pesticide use. Are there major problems in hemlock forests because of the insecticide being used? Environmental risks of imidacloprid use are very low, so it is a responsible management choice. Insecticide movement in the soil, canopy arthropod communities, and soil arthropods have all been studied. I did a study on aquatic insect communities in the Smokies, and the insecticide use for hemlock conservation had no negative impact on stream communities. The risk for pollinators has not been determined, but I have a research project assessing pollinator risks in North Georgia hemlock forests. It is also important to remember that hemlocks are keystone species, and their presence in forests conveys many environmental benefits. The loss of hemlock results in cascading environmental effects in our forests, from canopy habitats all the way down to stream communities.

As a forest health outreach specialist, what has been the best part of your job? I really like interacting with the resource community, from individual citizens to forestry companies and state agencies. Understanding what is important to them gives me direction for relevant, practical outreach and research. Shortly after starting with UGA, I knew that I needed to research pine tip moth management. Young pine stands are getting damaged, and growers need more options to manage this pest. There are newer control options that can help Georgia growers, and research is now underway to develop new management tactics for pine tip moth. The research will feed directly into my outreach material, so the work does not just stay in a journal. I get to help research-based forest management tactics go from the journal to field implementation.

What is your favorite project you’re working on right now? That’s the “Trees for Bees” project, a collaborative project between UGA College of Agriculture and Environmental Science and Warnell. We developed outreach materials to promote pollinator habitats in urban and suburban forests. Materials included extension bulletins, newspaper articles, a YouTube video, banners, coloring sheets for kids, a hands-on pollinator nesting box activity, and a PowerPoint presentation for county agents. Now we are getting to see all the pollinator events that county agents are conducting throughout Georgia. The real aim of this project is to empower citizens to make positive environmental changes to our urban and suburban forests.

What is the most important piece of advice you would give to Georgia landowners about forest health? Keep an eye on your forests and manage them properly. Often the forest health issue is very progressed by the time a landowner seeks help. If they can get a management plan and follow it, many forest health issues can be avoided.

 

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