Category Archives: Research & Innovation

Potential for new predatory mite to save cannabis crops

An AETIC course-based trial was conducted on Cannabis sativa plants

The course-based trial to determine the efficacy of Vineland’s new predatory mite was conducted by the fall 2020 cohort of students within the course Entomology and IPM of NC’s Commercial Cannabis Production program. Pictured here: students Brayden Carter (foreground) and Trewan Jodoin (background).

The cannabis aphid (Phorodon cannabis) and root aphid (Rhopalosiphum rufiabdominalis) are ubiquitous pests of cannabis cultivation. These culprits are capable of taking out entire crops, affecting cannabis plant growth, or at the very least, causing an inferior product. It’s a major concern for the commercial cannabis industry, which currently struggles to manage it.

The integrated pest management (IPM) of these bugs is tricky for several reasons. There’s a lack of scientific research around pest management in cannabis, as this crop has become legalized only recently. Also, pesticide options for controlling these aphids are extremely limited as the use of synthetic insecticides is not allowed in the cannabis industry.

A common intervention for aphid control in conventional crops is biological control – the use of beneficial/predatory insects – which chase off or kill aphids without damaging the plants.

However, up until now, aphid biocontrol has not been successful for cannabis crops, due to a lack of performance, so the challenge is to find an efficient predatory insect to do the job.

At Vineland Research and Innovation Centre (Vineland), one of its research programs supports the use of biological control strategies. The program is led by research scientist and program leader Rose Buitenhuis, PhD.

“In recent years, Vineland has undertaken extensive research trials to determine the potential of a native predatory mite species as a new biocontrol agent. The predator was discovered in St. Catharines by Taro Saito, a senior research technician at Vineland, who has studied its predation potential and developed a mass rearing system,” says Buitenhuis. “Vineland has now partnered with the Canadian biocontrol supply company Applied Bionomics in North Saanich, B.C., to bring it to market.” 

“Participating in a course-based research project to contribute data for a promising, and locally developed, new biocontrol agent in the cannabis industry was a highlight of my first term…”
~ NC student Deana Huntsbarger

Vineland partnered with Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) in a course-based project headed by NC’s Sebastien Jacob, a professor in the Greenhouse, Horticulture and Commercial Cannabis Production programs, to test the efficacy of Vineland’s new predatory mite.

Before now, no scientific studies have ever tested the potential of Vineland’s mite on cannabis plants.

“There are several reasons that may explain the lack of efficacy of current, and future, biocontrol agents against these pests on cannabis, but none of them has been researched yet. For example, the presence of non-glandular and glandular trichomes on the plant’s surfaces or the production of plant semiochemicals (terpenes) could have a detrimental effect on predator population establishment on cannabis plants,” explains Jacob. “If the new predatory mite is not hampered by these factors, then we are looking forward to further research collaboration, for the industry and for hands-on learning experiences to our students.”

The objective, continues Buitenhuis, was to determine if the new predatory mite can survive and reproduce, on Cannabis sativa plants as well as on the control plant Chrysanthemums when fed an unlimited supply of artificial food.

An AETIC course-based trial was conducted on Cannabis sativa plants

An AETIC course-based trial was conducted on Cannabis sativa plants as well as on the control plant Chrysanthemums to study if a new Vineland predatory mite is a candidate to help control the damaging cannabis aphid problem for the commercial cannabis industry. Before now, no scientific studies have ever tested the potential of Vineland’s mite on cannabis plants.

The trial was conducted in the Niagara College ‘CannaBunker’ by a fall 2020 cohort of students within the course Entomology and IPM of the Commercial Cannabis Production program, under the supervision of Jacob.

Two treatments (Cannabis sativa, Chrysanthemum) of 12 plants each were completely randomized on an Ebb and Flow growing bench. The predatory mites were released on each plant which were grown in vegetative growing conditions for eight weeks. Each week, the number, location and stage of the mite were counted and noted. 

The results, says Jacob, look highly encouraging.

“Vineland’s predatory mite successfully reproduced and developed on cannabis plants … this is really promising news,” he explains.

For the NC students, working on the predatory mite trial gave them a unique opportunity to conduct real-world research with enormous benefit for the cannabis industry.

“Participating in a course-based research project to contribute data for a promising, and locally developed, new biocontrol agent in the cannabis industry was a highlight of my first term, connecting me to innovations in my field while still in the classroom,” says student Deana Huntsbarger.

“It was truly an enjoyable and fascinating experience from start to finish,” adds Wyatt Scheller. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of this research and I am excited to learn more about the potential benefits this predatory mite could provide growers in the cannabis industry moving forward.”P

Buitenhuis says that with the positive results of the trial, Vineland is eager to collaborate with the College for more research in the future.

“Niagara College was easy to work with and the professor, technician and students were committed to delivering the best results. As such, they put in a lot of work and long hours, not an easy task during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Niagara College’s AETIC team works with private and public sector partners to develop innovative solutions to address today’s challenges in agriculture, local and sustainable food production, plant growth, horticulture practices, greenhouse operations, aquaponics and environmental management.

For more information, see the website.

Ecology study reaps key results at Niagara College vineyard

Ecologist Adam Martin, a professor in the Physical and Environmental Science department at the University of Toronto Scarborough, conducted a study at NC’s vineyard with the AETIC team and NC’s head winemaker to explore leaf economics spectrum traits of chardonnay grapes.

The leaf economics spectrum (LES) characterizes traits and their relationships to provide key insights into the ecology of plants, and their responses to environmental change.

Ecologists believe there are six leaf characteristics of importance: photosynthesis rate, leaf nitrogen concentrations, leaf mass per area, respiration rates, leaf phosphorus concentrations and leaf lifespan. These traits tell scientists about how plants are likely to “behave,” explains ecologist Adam Martin, a professor in the Physical and Environmental Science department at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

While much is known on how LES traits vary across wild plants, less is known how these traits vary in crop genotypes growing in managed agroecosystems, such as grape vineyards.

A new study, led by Martin, and in collaboration with Niagara College’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC) team and NC’s head winemaker, aims to explore these leaf traits on chardonnay grapes from NC’s vineyard at the Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Martin has been working with Kimberley Cathline, project manager with AETIC; Michael Duncan, PhD, NSERC Industrial Research Chair for Colleges; and Gavin Robertson, NC head winemaker and research lead for Research & Innovation, to research where on the leaf economics spectrum grapes – chardonnay in particular – are located.

“The general thought is that grapes – and most crops – should be really “high” on the leaf economics spectrum: really high photosynthesis rates, really high leaf nitrogen concentrations, but rather flimsy leaves. This is because crops have been bred to grow very, very fast compared to all other plants in the world,” explains Martin.

“The other thing that is pretty clear is that despite these plants being genetically identical, soil compaction really dictates chardonnay leaf characteristics at the farm…”

The research also sought to figure out if individual plants of the same grape variety differ in their leaf economics traits. Since all the chardonnay grapes at the NC vineyard are made of more or less the same genetic material, Martin says it might be expected for them to have the same leaf characteristics. But things like soil compaction are likely to have a big influence on these traits.

“The final thing is to understand if these leaf economics traits predict grape yield, quality, or both – though we haven’t measured that explicitly this time around.”

Martin says the work at the College’s vineyard is “looking really good” so far. As expected, he says, grapes are fairly high on the spectrum as compared to all other plants in the world.

“The other thing that is pretty clear is that despite these plants being genetically identical, soil compaction really dictates chardonnay leaf characteristics at the farm. In areas of higher compaction, photosynthesis is reduced by almost 75 percent in some cases, and the leaves are really tough.”

However, in areas with less compaction, the chardonnay photosynthesis is right up there with some of the fastest-growing plant species in the world, like wheat or corn, adds Martin.

LICOR-6800 portable photosynthesis instrument, measuring grape photosynthesis at the chardonnay vineyard at NC’s Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Ecologist Adam Martin utilized the LICOR-6800 portable photosynthesis instrument, to measure grape photosynthesis at the chardonnay vineyard at NC’s Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Martin and the AETIC group have coauthored a poster presented at the 2020 Annual Meeting of the British Ecological Society, and will write a scientific paper related to the research, to be published likely in the next few months, he says.

“I have also been tinkering with the idea of using drones and remote sensing to measure these traits from the sky. This is really Michael’s [Duncan] specialty, so I hope and think there is some room for collaborations in this area down the road.”

What brought the University of Toronto professor to Niagara College’s vineyard for research? Martin and his wife, originally both from Welland, recently moved back to Niagara to reside in Niagara-on-the-Lake. With that move came a decision to relocate his research in agroecology from tropical regions (he used to work in coffee agroforestry systems in Costa Rica), towards something closer to home.

“Grapevines seemed like a good choice, particularly considering I love pretending to be a wine buff,” he laughs. “From there, it certainly seemed like Niagara College and their team would be an ideal place to start, in terms of sparking new research and development collaborations. Thus far, working alongside Kimberley, Gavin and Michael has been a true pleasure.”

This research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Martin’s lab currently has support from an NSERC Discovery grant to explore how crops respond to environmental conditions (like drought or extreme heat).

To follow Martin’s further research with the College, or to view more AETIC applied research projects, visit the website.


Business strategist named project manager at NC-led Greenhouse Technology Network

It’s an exciting time to be involved in Ontario’s greenhouse industry – one of the most important and fastest-growing economic sectors in the country. Clearly, it’s an ever-changing, complex and competitive field, ripe with innovation and talented minds.

Enter Rita Sterne, PhD, who never met a challenge she didn’t like. As a business strategist and an artist, she harnesses curiosity and creativity as the wellspring to find unique perspectives to solve even the most vexing problems.

Having spent most of her life thinking deeply about challenges and solutions – more recently in the greenhouse industry – Sterne has been named project manager for the Greenhouse Technology Network (GTN), a Niagara College-led consortium of three institutions supporting the research and development needs of the greenhouse industry through applied research projects.

Sterne holds a PhD in Management, as well as an MBA in Hospitality and Tourism, both from the University of Guelph. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship with Guelph’s School of Engineering in a project on “Value Creation Using Robots in the Ontario Vegetable Greenhouse Industry.”

“This position with the GTN allows me to use my capabilities to support the incredibly agile and creative business people in the greenhouse industry.”

NC was awarded a grant from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev) to create an innovative network for research and technology in Southern Ontario’s greenhouse sector, an area that makes up half of Canada’s greenhouses.

“…what’s really exciting for them is there’s been that leap in terms of what is possible when technologies are put together in a system and data is captured and leveraged.”

Along with funding technology development projects at NC’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre (AETIC), the network also includes the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF) at the University of Guelph and Vineland Research & Innovation as partners to provide complementary research services to the greenhouse industry.

The College’s AETIC team has extensive experience in greenhouse research and development solutions and plans are in place to build a near-net-zero applied research greenhouse, to replace the existing, aging structure, at the Daniel J. Patterson campus in Niagara-on-the-Lake. 

Sterne says the objective of the GTN is to bring together greenhouse and technology businesses with research institutions to advance development and adoption of new technologies.

She is working with partner institutions to assess what’s needed and how the GTN can best support the greenhouse industry in Niagara and beyond. In her experience, Sterne says industry managers are already extremely tech savvy and understand how critical technology is to competitiveness in this growing sector.

“They have been using technology to help them understand controlled environments and plant production as carefully as they can. But what’s really exciting for them is there’s been that leap in terms of what is possible when technologies are put together in a system and data is captured and leveraged,” she says, adding she’s not making any assumptions about the needs of the industry.

“This role gives me an incredible opportunity to look at a set of challenges faced by businesses in the greenhouse value chain and help them find potential solutions,” she says. “It suits my curiosity to learn because there is so much going on in the greenhouse industry that I’m hoping to leverage my experience, knowledge and curiosity for the service of industry businesses and our stakeholders.”

Indeed, Sterne’s curious nature was fomented by growing up in a creative learning environment. Her mother, a teacher and her father, a technologist and a sailor, Sterne was surrounded by a family creating things, solving problems and discussing ideas. For Sterne it instilled a thirst to understand how she could solve problems in the management stratum, which then led to her foray into higher education.

“I learned about different ways to view challenges to help counteract the idea that there is only one right way to solve a problem,” she explains.

“I learned about different ways to view challenges to help counteract the idea that there is only one right way to solve a problem.”

As an artist, Sterne draws a parallel between the process of complicated problem solving and her other passion – stained glass, which she crafts with her partner in their home studio in Crystal Beach. He does the lead work and soldering and she does the copper foil work.

Stained glass, she says, is intricate in nature – not unlike the inner workings of a strategic plan. 

“The process working with strategy or big projects requires you to wait until the end for results and you’ve got to be it in for the long haul,” she explains. “Stained glass is a complicated craft with many steps and you have to be patient because the result is somewhat muddied until you reach the end and then you hold it up to the light.”

The interplay between light and colour has been a recurring theme throughout her life, she explains, referring to herself as the “silver linings” type. She holds close her favourite quote of all time: “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in” – a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem.

“It’s one of the most beautiful quotes in the world to me and it seems to work with strategy, it works with problem solving, it works with glass,” she says. “Believe me, I shed tears, but then I step back from it and I just automatically say, ‘Okay, where is the good in this? Where’s the light?’”

When she carves out spare time, especially during warmer weather, she makes the short walk from her home to the lake, where she can be found either swimming or kayaking. As an avid sailor most of her life, Sterne sold her Laser racing sailboat shortly after her parents sold their cruising sailboat, a Cartwright-designed 44-foot cutter rig.

She’s now on the look-out for people with boats who need crew.

Environmental technologist still relies on R&I skills

Dale Hibrant is a 2013 graduate of Niagara College’s Environmental Technician Field and Laboratory Co-op program. He worked with Research & Innovation as a senior environmental research associate from May to December 2013. He is an environmental technologist with the Department of National Defence.

Tell us about where you work:

I work at the Department of National Defence as a civilian in Safety and Environment Unit Support with the Fleet Maintenance Facility.

The Fleet Maintenance Facility Cape Breton is a unit of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), whose primary mandate is to support the operation of the RCN Fleet. Considered an essential military strategic asset of the Department of National Defence, we provide naval engineering, repair and maintenance services to ensure critical operational capabilities are available in the Fleet and other shore establishments.

Describe your role and what you like about it:

As an environmental technologist my role includes managing an environmental system in accordance with ISO 14001, to ensure the industrial ship maintenance facility complies with environmental regulations; developing and maintaining environmental programs; environmental sampling and results analysis; environmental assessments; permitting and inspections for waste management; handling wildlife incidents; training staff and hazardous materials management.

There is a lot of diversity in my job, which makes it both challenging and enjoyable.

At CFB Esquimalt we have a dry dock, which allows the Unit to work on ships while they are out of the water. These docking events are very exciting but also strenuous for many reasons. While the dock is flooded, the ship gets moved in to place. Then a large caisson wall closes off the area and the dry dock is drained completely, exposing the entire ship’s hull. However, while this all occurs, marine aquatic life gets trapped in the dry dock, and it is a part of my job to capture the marine life, identify and tally the species and return them back to their natural habitat.

We call this a “dry dock fish salvage” as it involves the relocation of marine life that can become trapped during the draining of the dry dock. The fish salvage effort is approved by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and ensures that marine life are safely released back to Esquimalt Harbour. Each event can produce different organisms and the salvage effort is a unique opportunity to document the diversity of species found in the harbour.

If this isn’t your main job since graduating, please give us an idea of what types of related things you’ve been doing since graduating:

After graduating, I spent a few years working with non-profit organizations as a restoration and stewardship project technician. I was involved in a variety of projects relating to riparian restoration, aquatic species rehabilitation, pollinator habitat creation, forest health and diversity, agricultural land restoration, and public education.

I then spent one year attending university to get my B.Sc. in Environmental Science.

Throughout the past few years, I have been employed in several different horticultural positions as well. Beginning as a lawn and garden maintenance team lead, I was quickly promoted to garden and maintenance project manager and then transferred into an estimator position. I started with the Department of National Defence in February 2019. 

How has your experience with Research & Innovation helped prepare you for your current role?

My position at R&I allowed me to further advance my leadership and initiative skill traits by relying on my past work experiences and giving me creative freedom and support while designing and implementing a water quality and quantity sampling plan.

My current role requires me to take on a leadership role in managing our environmental systems, creating programs and educating and training the workforce. In a workplace that encompasses a large variety of employment positions and different activities, taking initiative is essential to meet deadlines and satisfy management reviews.   


“My position at R&I allowed me to further advance my leadership and initiative skill traits by relying on my past work experiences and giving me creative freedom and support while designing and implementing a water quality and quantity sampling plan.”

A memorable applied research project during your time at R&I?

I worked on a project for the Town of Fort Erie, in which we collected background data for the creeks and drains throughout the watershed. Sampling days out in the field were always the best as we got to see many incredible species and creek conditions throughout the life of the project. However, I specifically remember during the end of the summer setting up certain equipment that would be left out to monitor the conditions over a longer time period.  One of our hopes with this was to try and catch a Blanding’s Turtle on camera. We very strategically set up wildlife cameras in known sighting areas around hidden marshes and ponds, trying to predict what logs the turtles might use and what banks they would use to enter/exit the water. Sadly, we never did catch one on camera; however, we were able to make a lot of other wildlife observations for our report. 

What led you to Niagara College in the first place?

I already had a degree in Criminology, but knew I wanted to work in the environmental field, maybe someday combining the two into environmental criminology research. After speaking with a former professor, it sounded like I needed to develop a stronger science background to achieve these goals. I quickly narrowed down my options to Niagara College and Fleming College based on course descriptions for the programs. At that time in my life, Niagara was the clear choice so that I could remain near the Hamilton area where I was raised. 

Most memorable experience at NC?

This is a hard one to answer. The labs were always well-designed, planned, user-friendly, and great learning experiences. Whether we were driving professor Martin Smith crazy with our unorthodox approaches or making Andrea Smith laugh during microscope slide preps, or just general singing while we work through a soils lab; there was always an important take away which provided me with guidance and knowledge that was previously foreign to me.

Niagara College really helped me improve my presentation skills and there is one presentation that sticks with me still. It was a group presentation for our Health and Safety/WHMIS course. Part of the presentation was that we had to include a health and wellness exercise for the class to participate (i.e. meditation, stretching, etc.). That morning we decided that we would have my classmate/friend TJ lead the class in a little aerobics exercise… and of course, we HAD to do it to the big LMFAO hit of 2012, Sexy And I Know It. Yes, we got lots of laughs. Since then I’ve always tried to make presentations fun, because otherwise they’re just boring.     

Is there a particular mentor at either R&I or a faculty member who influenced you?

Professor Martin Smith. Still to this day I hope to become the next version of him, teaching at a college. I still have about eight years to go before I think I’ll get there. However, his knowledge and expertise, combined with his passion and curiosity are like nothing else. There was always a unique type of mutual respect and professionalism, while we were still able to have fun both doing what we enjoy.

What advice would you impart to current research students or future alumni?

For future alumni, it’s simple: get involved. When you start to do this, you will quickly learn that community isn’t all that big. There are lots of opportunities out there.

For research students, I would say to use this opportunity to be a leader, take chances and be serious about it; start to see yourself as the professional in the industry that you want to become. 

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

Personally, I have learned that I need to always be continuously learning. If a job becomes too mundane then I’m not able to perform my tasks to my highest abilities. I think it is wise to always be aware of any opportunities, whether that be career development, training, education, or a new job. 

Proudest achievement since graduating?

While working only a couple of years with a non-profit organization I wrote numerous grants for various projects totalling $726,000 in cash alone for ecological restoration in the Niagara region. 

Interests outside of work?

I have an Australian shepherd dog and we love to adventure and hike, following rivers and looking for waterfalls. I’m a big fan of yoga and also love relaxing with a bonfire on the beach and some good music.  

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?

We often forget that these moments are temporary.


Industry Partner intake ongoing at Research & Innovation

Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division is currently offering small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) a way to advance their product development, improve their performance or take an innovative leap forward, thanks to government funding from various sources, and service opportunities available with our Innovation Centres.

We can help solve your innovation challenges related to technology adoption, in the sectors of:

    • • advanced manufacturing
    • • food and beverage
    • • agriculture/greenhouse and environmental technologies
    • • business & commercialization

The Niagara College team of expert faculty, students and researchers from our Innovation Centres will work with businesses to access resources to address technology and innovation challenges. As a result of this partnership opportunity, industry partners will:

    • • develop new prototypes, products, processes
    • • explore shelf-life extension
    • • enhance greenhouse operations
    • • test results that validate their products and services
    • • advance horticultural practices
    • • improve manufacturing production process
    • • bring their products closer to market
    • • gain market research, marketing plans and/or social media plans

In some cases, where government funding is involved, companies accessing these resources at Niagara College will be required to match those funds, at least 1:1, with a combination of cash and in-kind. In some cases, there is the possibility of fee for service opportunities, usually involving a short turn-around in a project outcome, but where the cost of the project is borne entirely by the industry partner.

In all cases, the intellectual property developed during the project belongs to the industry partner.

For more information, visit our Centres, linked below:

When you are ready for a conversation on next steps, please reach out to Elizabeth Best, Business Development Coordinator, at [email protected].


*Updated messages to Niagara College’s response to COVID-19 can always be found on the NC homepage.

NOW HIRING: Health Research Assistant position available at Research & Innovation

Health Research Assistant, Research & Innovation

The successful candidate will work remotely and meet regularly with the Research Project manager and other members of the research team through virtual software programs. Looking for a motivated Research Assistant who is interested in supporting the development of various resources to be used in the content creation and pilot phase of a research project.

Click HERE for the full job posting. The deadline to apply is Friday, January 29th, 2021 at 4pm.

To apply, please email your resume and cover letter to [email protected] and reference job posting ‘HR21-01’.

We thank all applicants; however, only those qualifying for an interview will be contacted.