Creepy crawlies protect apples when flowers planted on farms

Bugs including hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds play an important role in keeping Britain’s apples healthy, a new study has shown.

Wildflower strips planted around apple orchards provide a habitat for predatory insects that prey on pests that deform and damage apples.

Flower margins had been established next to five dessert apple orchards in the UK. A research team led by the University of Reading found that only 48% of trees had fruit damage compared to 80% in orchards without flowers.

In 2020, 200,000 tonnes of dessert apples worth £158 million were produced in the United Kingdom. The two-year study, published this week in the Journal of Applied Ecology, suggests farmers could harvest up to an additional 2,420 kg per hectare (6.9%) of undamaged, premium apples by installing flower margins on orchards.

Lead author Charlotte Howard, from the University of Reading, said, “By looking after our creepy crawlies, we can take better care of our apples. Planting flower margins near fruit trees is a sustainable way of preventing damage to crops as it reduces reliance on insecticides. We will get more good bugs on farms and better British food in supermarkets as more flower strips are added next to orchards.”

“To our knowledge, ours is the first study to detect a reduction in crop pest damage at harvest when a flower strip is present compared with a control. We found an agronomically significant reduction in crop damage and yield loss by a globally important pest at far-reaching distances into the crop area. The positive effects of flower margins were stronger and extended further into the crop during a year with higher pest pressure. We show perennial flower strips as a realistic tool to support pest control services for sustainable production in the future, for example by buffering the effects of pest pressure related to climate variation and change.”

Good margins for better harvests
The study utilised large, mature wildflower margins more than five meters wide and included grasses and flowers chosen to supply year-round food sources. The long-established nature of the margins gave time for diverse communities of predatory insects to build up.

The research team found that flower margins reduced not only the spread of aphids on trees, but also how many fruits were attacked on infested trees. Apples near flower borders had over a third less chance of fruit damage even during peak aphid outbreaks. Significant reductions in damaged crop extended up to 50 meters into orchards from the floral habitat.

Simple conservation measures like dedicating orchard edge habitat for wildflowers could reduce reliance on pesticide sprays over the long term. Allowing pollinators and biocontrol insect species to thrive supporting sustainable food production.

The research team, led by the University of Reading, included NIAB East Malling, Cranfield University and Syngenta.

Read the research article, Perennial flower margins reduce orchard fruit damage by rosy apple aphid, Dysaphis plantaginea (Homoptera: Aphididae)

Support a practical, investable and inclusive narrative for land use.

Sign-up to receive our newsletter

Newsletter Signup
Contribute for just £2.50 per week
Skip to content