ARABLE farmers in the north-east of England are investigating how farmers can use flowers to attract predatory insects to fight crop pests.

The six farmers hope to unlock more knowledge about how to support the right insect populations, when and where they are most needed, by looking at the impact of flower establishment techniques, flower species mixes, and distribution of flowering features on 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, Newcastle University, ADAS, and Stockbridge Technology Centre.

It’s hoped their findings could help other farmers gain more confidence and knowledge about integrating flowers into their systems, so they can reduce their reliance on pesticides and fungicides, with benefits for the environment, biodiversity, and production costs.

Agri-environment schemes have traditionally emphasised attracting insects for conservation, such as pollinators and butterflies,noted Dr David George, an entomologist at Newcastle University: “While pollinators are essential for food production and biodiversity, farmers know less about attracting and supporting the right predatory insects, such as ladybirds and parasitic wasps, which eat aphids and other pests.

“In the last few years, however, there has been a huge increase in the number of farmers now engaging with methods to encourage these beneficial insects and the 'biological control' services they can provide.”

Senior knowledge transfer manager at AHDB, Dr Emily Pope, who is coordinating the field lab, explained that gaining knowledge about a range of systems was a key part of the trial: “What’s different about this trial is that we’re including the farmers’ systems as they are, rather than creating uniform conditions, so it’s about seeing how we can use flowers and insects in real-life farming situations.”

“We’re just scratching the surface about what we know, because using flowers and predatory insects has not been a feature of most farms for a long time. Insect populations and their life cycles are much more complex than a shelf of chemicals, and so it will take years to build up that knowledge about what works on your land," said Dr Pope.

“However, it’s no different to how farmers already build knowledge about, for example, their soils and the way they respond to weather conditions – but it does mean now is a good time to start that journey and take the opportunity to create a system less reliant on synthetic chemicals.”

Pests such as aphids, and diseases transmitted by pests such as barley yellow dwarf virus, could cause crop losses totalling £139million a year if untreated, according to AHDB. This is despite farmers spending 17% of their total cost of production (£433/ha) a year on pesticides and fungicides (based on AHDB Farmbench winter wheat data for 2020), and applying 16,900 tonnes of pesticides across Great Britain in 2016, according to Defra.

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

“Previously, we referred to synthetic chemicals when we spoke about what was in a farmer’s toolbox, but we will never have those tools available in the same way again. Biology, not chemistry, is going to be in that toolbox increasingly in the future,” she said.

“The ultimate goal would be to encourage a farmed landscape that is supported by a patchwork of flowering habitats across each farm, and then for neighbouring farmers to work together to connect up habitats and features,” she continued. “Beneficial insects are as vital to a farm as soil itself – they are ‘livestock’ as much as sheep and cattle.”