Best Use of Wildflowers to Benefit Crops

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Cornell University | Morning Ag Clips | 10/16/2018

ITHACA, N.Y. — With bee pollinators in decline and pesky crop pests lowering yields, sustainable and organic farmers need environmentally friendly solutions.

One strategy is to border crops with wildflower plantings to attract pollinators and pest predators. But scientists have suggested that such plantings may only be effective when farms are surrounded by the right mix of natural habitat and agricultural land.

Image of wildflower

For the first time, a Cornell University study of strawberry crops on New York farms tested this theory and found that wildflower strips on farms added pollinators when the farm lay within a “Goldilocks zone,” where 25 to 55 percent of the surrounding area contained natural lands. Outside this zone, flower plantings also drew more strawberry pests, while having no effect on wasps that kill those pests.

Still, more pollinators in this ideal landscape zone boosted strawberry yields overall. The analysis has implications for many types of state and federal programs in the United States and abroad that promote establishing pollinator habitats on farms.

“We’re investing huge amounts of money on these programs and right now it’s not part of the policy to think about the landscape context of where these habitats are placed,” said Heather Grab, Ph.D. ’17, the paper’s first author and a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Katja Poveda, associate professor of entomology and a co-author of the study.

The paper, “Landscape Context Shifts the Balance of Costs and Benefits From Wildflower Border on Multiple Ecosystem Services,” published Aug. 1 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests targeting wildflower borders to farms with the right conditions and modifying wildflower plant species could maximize success.

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