More than a dozen farms across the United Kingdom are beginning to experiment with a new form of natural pest control, and their fields are getting prettier, at least in the eyes of pollinating insects. The premise is simple: To make their crop fields more inviting to beneficial bugs, farmers are providing habitat space with “wildflower strips” in the middle of their fields.
These farms are part of a large-scale trial supported by the Achieving Sustainable Agricultural Systems (ASSIST) program. Over the course of the five-year study, testers are sowing strips of flowers into the middle of commercial fields to determine what benefits they offer for pest control. For example, immature parasitic wasps feast on aphids, but adult wasps need only pollen and nectar to survive. Standard monocropped fields don’t provide enough food to support these adult wasp populations, so the wasps die out before they can lay eggs and produce successive generations. The flower strips allow the land to support every stage of the wasps’ life cycles, providing a more holistic option than pesticides for aphid control.
Similar studies conducted in Switzerland show that planting pollinator strips can reduce crop leaf damage by 61 percent and potentially increase yields by 10 percent, making it economical — even profitable — to devote some farmland to wildflowers.
ASSIST plans to continue expanding these tests to more farms in hopes of gaining a better understanding of effective organic pest control techniques. For instance, the study is also looking at the benefits wildflower borders around fields may offer. Small bug species often can’t travel far enough to reach the center of large fields from their borders, though, so experimenters predict the pest-control benefits will continue to be most pronounced with in-field wildflower strips.
While few researchers believe that wildflower strips and beneficial insects will eliminate the need for pesticides altogether, there’s evidence such strips might significantly limit the overall amount needed. Read more about this and other sustainable agriculture research in the U.K. at the Rothamsted website.