Dept. of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection: Christmas trees, honeybees, nurseries: All in a day’s work for Liz Meils

Contact: Donna Gilson 608-224-5130
[email protected]
Jim Dick, Communications Director, 608-224-5020
[email protected]

MADISON – Wanted: Someone who knows plant sciences, pests, and pest control, and is familiar with plant regulations, able to work with bees, and handle administrative procedures; who can network with a half dozen trade organizations, and is comfortable doing public presentations and media interviews. Must be able to walk in rough terrain and withstand extremes in heat, humidity and cold.

Impossible to find someone with all those qualifications, right? But those are actual requirements listed in Liz Meils’ job description. She is a plant pest and disease specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

In that role, she oversees the state’s nursery and sod inspection programs. She’s also the state apiarist, serving as an expert resource for beekeepers and overseeing hive inspections. Besides managing these programs, coordinating two apiary inspectors, and writing up weekly reports for the department’s Pest Survey Bulletin, she also covers the southwestern corner of the state as a nursery inspector herself.

“There is no typical day, because the work we do covers so many areas, and every season our job changes,” Meils says. “In the spring, we’re working on seed sampling, then greenhouse inspections, and then nursery growers. In the fall, it’s time for Christmas tree inspections and gypsy moth egg mass surveys, then we do license renewals and then we’re back to seed sampling.”

The main goal of all the programs Meils oversees is to prevent and control pests and diseases that could cause economic harm to producers and the state as a whole.

Greenhouse and nursery inspections focus primarily on trees and perennial plants, because both could harbor pests and diseases capable of surviving winter only to reappear and spread the next year. Annual plants are less of a worry, but occasionally regulated pests do show up on them. Nurseries that ship interstate get top priority, and are inspected annually, she says. Small growers who sell only in their local area get inspected every two or three years.

Likewise, Christmas tree growers who ship trees interstate get annual inspections. There, the focus is on pests such as pine shoot beetle and gypsy moth. Growers selling in-state are inspected less frequently. Egg mass surveys go along with Christmas tree inspections; inspectors crane their necks, searching for gypsy moth egg masses on deciduous trees around the Christmas tree fields.

The two apiary inspectors do about 30 inspections for migratory beekeepers every year, assuring beekeepers in the states where they’re headed that Wisconsin hives won’t be bringing any pests and diseases with them. They also do about 500 voluntary inspections of non-migratory hives.

In all cases, nursery and apiary inspectors not only look for those regulated pests that could lead to producers having to destroy plants or hives; they also offer helpful information and advice about non-regulated pests and diseases, so their visits are more welcome than might be expected.

Meils had been working as a limited term employee in the department’s gypsy moth program for two years when she landed her permanent job in 2006, with its apiary responsibilities. “Colony collapse disorder started in 2006, so it was quite a year to start with the apiary program,” she recalls. Colony collapse, she says, is a general term for poor honeybee colony health with many causes and no definitive diagnosis. She’s dealt with questions about it from both beekeepers and the media during her entire tenure.

Because she manages these programs, office time and paperwork are a necessary part of her job, but she does manage to get out in the field, too.

“I just love being able to wake up and decide what I want to do and where I want to go, depending on the weather,” she says. “I have the flexibility to get in the truck and go look at trees or go look at garden centers. My favorite time is Christmas tree inspections. The heat of summer is worn off, and the leaves are changing. Most of those fields are up north and it’s fun to get out of my normal territory.”

The people she meets are another benefit, she says: “There are so many characters that we deal with – Christmas tree growers, beekeepers, firewood dealers. It’s fun to meet so many different types of people around Wisconsin and hear their stories, and I learn from many of them.”

Meils is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, with a bachelor’s degree in environmental biology and land use geography. A native of Wisconsin Rapids, she now lives in Madison with her husband and 3- year-old daughter.

She concludes, “I have the same challenges that everyone in this building has: trying to explain to people why they need to follow regulations.”

That shouldn’t be so hard for someone who needs to know plant regulations and be able to work with bees, walk in rough terrain, and handle extremes of heat, cold and humidity.