Farmers harness the power of flowers to fight pests

AFarmers in North East England are studying how farmers can better harness the power of flowers to control pests, by attracting predatory insects.

The six farmers hope to unlock more knowledge on how to attract and support the right insect populations, when and where they are most needed, by examining the impact of flower establishment techniques, plant mixes. flower species and the distribution of flowering characteristics on the farm.

The growers, who operate both conventional and organic systems, are part of an AHDB-sponsored Innovative Farmers field lab, supported by the Soil Association and researchers from AHDB, University of Newcastle, ADAS and Stockbridge Technology Center.

It is hoped that their findings could help other farmers gain more confidence and knowledge about integrating flowers into their systems, so they can reduce their dependence on pesticides and fungicides, with environmental benefits. , biodiversity and production costs.

Farmers will monitor insect populations in existing and newly established flowering characteristics, and also experiment with different seed mixes and establishment techniques depending on their soil types. Some will also test different distributions of flowers around their farms, such as flower bands in crops or large flower blocks, instead of just the bloom margins.

Agri-environmental programs have traditionally focused on attracting insects for conservation purposes, such as pollinators and butterflies, says Dr David George, entomologist at Newcastle University.

“While pollinators are essential for food production and biodiversity, farmers are less aware of how to attract and support good predatory insects, such as ladybugs and parasitic wasps, which feed on aphids and other pests,” explains Dr George.

“In recent years, however, there has been a huge increase in the number of farmers who are now engaging with methods to encourage these beneficial insects and the ‘biological control’ services they can provide. “

Why we need to start acquiring knowledge now

Acquiring knowledge about a range of systems is a key part of the trial, adds Dr Emily Pope, senior knowledge transfer manager at AHDB, who coordinates the field lab.

“What is different about this essay is that we are including the farmers’ systems as they are, rather than creating uniform conditions, so it’s about seeing how we can use the flowers and the insects in it. real farming situations, ”she says.

Efficient use of flowers and insects will require a “more knowledge-intensive” mode of operation, says Pope, as farmers gain a specific understanding of habitats and wildlife on their own farms.

“We’re only scratching the surface of what we know, because the use of flowers and predatory insects hasn’t been a feature of most farms for a long time,” says Dr Pope. “Insect populations and their life cycles are much more complex than a shelf of chemicals, so it will take years to gain this knowledge of what works on your earth.

“However, this is no different from how farmers are already learning about, for example, their soils and how they react to weather conditions – but it does mean that now is the time to start this journey and seize the opportunity to create a system less dependent on synthetic chemicals.

How the farmer’s toolbox is evolving

Pests such as aphids and pest-borne diseases such as barley yellow dwarf virus could lead to crop losses totaling £ 139million per year, according to the AHDB, if they are not treated. This despite the fact that farmers spend 17% of their total cost of production (£ 433 / ha) per year on pesticides and fungicides (based on AHDB Farmbench winter wheat data for 2020) and apply 16,900 tonnes of pesticides to across Britain in 2016, according to Defra.

The impacts on insect and bird populations, and on soil, water and environmental health, are well documented, and producers are rapidly losing the use of active ingredients. All of these factors are key factors for the farmers participating in the trial, explains Dr Pope.

“We used to talk about synthetic chemicals when we talked about what was in a farmer’s toolbox, but we’ll never have those tools available the same way again. Biology, not chemistry, will be more and more of this toolkit in the future, ”she says.

“The ultimate goal would be to encourage an agricultural landscape supported by a mosaic of flowering habitats on each farm, and then for neighboring farmers to work together to connect habitats and features,” says Dr Pope. “Beneficial insects are as vital to a farm as the soil itself – they are as much ‘cattle’ as sheep and cattle. “

“Helping farmers research agroecological practices, which integrate nature into food production while improving outcomes, is the essence of farmer-led research,” adds Rebecca Swinn, Head of Innovative Farmers.

“By increasing knowledge about non-chemical pest management, farmers are leading the way in the transition to a better food system. The experience gained in this field laboratory will be vital in giving others the confidence to try for themselves and research alternatives to pesticides.

Farmer case studies

Angus Gowthorpe: “I want to know where to distribute the flower bands”

Mixed farmer Angus Gowthorpe has had his fair share of pests, having lost his entire oilseed rape crop in 2019 due to flea beetle, and has already suffered up to 15% crop losses due to the yellow dwarf barley (BYDV). He also had issues with the weevils which reduced the value of the beans by around £ 30 / t.

Since 2014, he has practiced regenerative agriculture and has not used insecticides on his 400-acre farm near York, where he grows arable crops and grazes suckler cattle.

“We have been increasing beneficial plants for some time, but it is more because we have chosen the path of regenerative agriculture with more diverse rotations and without the use of insecticides, than something that we have tried to achieve. deliberately, ”says Gowthorpe.

“Now, I want to increase our pollinators and our predatory insects to fight against pests, and more generally to boost the biodiversity of our farm. Hopefully the field lab will help me do this and gain a better understanding of what species of flowers and herbs we need to attract specific insects, and also how far apart the flower margins should be.

“Some research indicates that insects travel about 50m, so you should plant your flower margins, or flower bands in the field, no more than 100m away. It’s in a conventional system though, so I want to know if the same applies in a regenerative system like mine.

Mr Gowthorpe says he has noticed a lot more insects on his farm since he stopped using insecticides, including more spiders and beetles, and that this has also translated above in the food chain by more mice, birds of prey and English partridges. He hopes that the increase in the area of ​​the margins and flower bands will further increase the number and diversity.

Frances Standen: “I want to know how to make the most of what we already have”

Frances Standen, says a healthy farming environment teeming with plant and insect species helps reduce chemical inputs on her 300-acre mixed-use farm near Malton.

The sharecropping farm has a wide range of flowers and plants that attract a variety of insects, thanks to 10 years in higher level stewardship agreements, and other work Frances has done since taking over. the rental four years ago.

She hopes the field lab will help further improve what the farm already has and continue to build a managed ecosystem that takes care of itself and protects against pests and disease.

“We have a lot of rare flowers and plants that grew in the arable fields, like Weasel Snout, which has a little pink flower,” says Ms. Standen. “These already attract insects, but we want to know how to modify what we have to attract even more beneficial insects. We have a lot of specific species on the farm, so we don’t need to introduce new flowers, but rather improve on what we already have.

“Creating a healthy system that takes care of itself is already showing its value. We haven’t had to use insecticides in the four years we’ve been here and with input costs rising dramatically right now, the holistic approach that involves creating a healthy environment is starting to pay off. real benefits, ”she says.

Over 140 species of plants were discovered on the farm during a recent botanical walk. Flowers that attract insects to the farm include trefoil, knapweed, and wild geranium, and there are rare ones like large-flowered hemp nettle, southern swamp orchid, and corn buttercup. .

“A growing population of nectar-feeding butterfly species is already contributing to a healthy agricultural ecosystem, providing food for bats and birds,” adds Ms. Standen.

For more information on this trial as it progresses, and to learn more about other research being conducted by farmers, visit

Innovative Farmers is a non-profit network that provides farmers with research support and funding on their own terms. Through the network, groups of farmers work directly with a researcher to design practical on-farm trials, called field laboratories. The program is managed by the Soil Association. Innovative Farmers is part of the Duchy Future Farming Program. The network is funded by the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Fund and supported by a team from LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), Innovation for Agriculture, the Organic Research Center and the Soil Association. Network partners span educational, research and charitable organizations and include: Rothamsted, Duchy College, Center for Agroecology, Food Security & Land Research Alliance, and Harper Adams University. Innovative Farmers is sponsored by AHDB, Riverford and Buccleuch. It is supported by the Farmer Network, the Pasture Fed Livestock Association, the EU funded LIAISON project and the Organic Growers Alliance.

The Soil Association was founded in 1946 by farmers, scientists, doctors, and nutritionists to promote the link between healthy soil, food, animals, people, and the environment. Today, the Soil Association is the UK’s leading charity campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, agriculture and land use. Its Managing Director is Helen Browning and the Chairman of the Board of Directors is Gabriel Scally.

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