Nakayla Lestina spent most of her high school career playing with bugs.
Knee deep in grass, tamarisk, thistle, beans, wheat and sunflowers, the Dove Creek student coaxed tiny insects to find new homes among the flora of Dolores and Montezuma counties, sending them on a path of destruction through fields and stream banks. Intentionally.
The insects, and the destruction, were part of four major research projects Lestina worked on beginning in seventh grade. All four projects were focused on biological control of invasive plant species in Southwest Colorado and the culmination of the work earned Lestina high praise and the honor of the Colorado FFA Conventions Star Over Colorado for AgriScience, award.
The award is designed to recognize excellence in a an agriscience research project, excellence demonstrated by Lestina and her in-depth study into the use of insects to control invasive plant species.
I spent time testing three natural insect enemies and their impact on local crops, Lestina said.
In six years, Lestina, 18, completed projects focused on biological control of Canada thistle, tamarisk and diffuse knapweed. For each plant she tested different insects and tracked control and spread of insects, as well as any negative impacts on crops and native plants in the region.
Lestina started her science career early, prodded by her brothers first-place project at the state science fair when she was in sixth grade.
That just motivated me to find a topic I was really interested in and kind of follow in his footsteps, she said.
A conversation with her father, John Lestina, an employee of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, led Lestina to her interest in biological controls.
One day my dad had a magazine on his desk with different biological controls and I was flipping through that and we started talking about which invasive plants were a problem in our area and it just kind of developed from that.
What began as a simple science project in seventh grade developed into a full-blown research project once Lestina entered Dove Creek High School and became a part of the FFA program at the school.
Students in the ag program are encouraged to develop supervised agricultural experience projects, commonly called SAEs, and Lestina knew her biological control project was just the thing to continue through her high school career.
In addition to her biological control project, filed under the agriscience category of the program, Lestina also interned with NRCS and had a beekeeping project.
Deciding to expand her agriscience project in high school, Lestina began to compare biological controls to chemical controls, as well as map the spread of the insects used and compared different bugs to fight the same plant.
I learned some really interesting things, she said. My final year, with diffuse knapweed, I kind of combined two to three years in one project to make it a little more complex. I tested to see which of two insects would attack the most, have the most control and the furthest spread.
Her research was somewhat inconclusive, as the flower weevil attacked the most plants but the root weevil provided the most control, an insect stalemate.
Where her results were conclusive, however, was in the comparison between chemical and biological controls.
I found that the bio control has many positives to it, she said. For one, it is less labor intensive. You only have to release insects once as opposed to going out at least twice a year to spray, and you have to do it every year. And although insect control doesnt happen right away, neither does chemical control. Im looking at a 41 percent reduction in invasive plants at three years so just about 6-7 years fully controlled. That is similar to chemicals and far less damaging.
Lestina, who graduated from Dove Creek High School this year, plans to continue her work on range health, studying range management in college. She also hopes to return to Southwest Colorado, bringing with her knowledge and a passion to continue to benefit the land with bugs.
Reach Kimberly Benedict at [email protected]