- Wildflowers are home to many beneficial insects, including natural predators to common crop pests like cereal leaf beetles and aphids
- Fields planted with strips of wildflowers had 40 to 53 percent lower beetle density and 61 percent less beetle damage compared to the control fields
- Research revealed the frequency of pollinator visits was 25 percent higher for crops with adjacent flower strips compared to those without
- Wildflowers reduce pests and increase pollinators, which is in stark contrast to the increasing use of pesticides, which is furthering the emergence of superweeds and insects while decimating beneficial pollinators
In the U.S., about 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually, 90 percent of which are used by the agricultural sector.1 There are many problems with the indiscriminate use of these toxic chemicals, like the fact that 82 percent of domestic fruits and 62 percent of domestic vegetables contain pesticide residues,2 to say nothing of the risks of pesticide poisoning faced by the 2.5 million farmworkers in the U.S., about 60 percent of whom live in poverty.3
Crop land does not exist in a bubble, which means some of the pesticides sprayed onto the land end up contaminating neighboring fields, soil, water and air. Even in the case of systemic pesticides, which are taken up into the plant as a whole via pesticide-treated seeds, about 95 percent of the substances ends up not in the plant cells where it was intended but blown off as dust or permeating the soil and water.4
Then there’s the fact that nature eventually finds a way to outsmart the pesticides, such that we’ve seen the emergence of pesticide-resistant superweeds and super insects. The pesticide industry’s response, rather than admitting defeat, is to encourage the use of more pesticides and more genetically engineered (GE) crops to go with them, but it’s a vicious cycle.
Glyphosate-resistant superweeds like pigweed are now driving farmers to seek out dicamba-resistant crops, but dicamba-resistant weeds have already sprouted in some states, raising serious doubts that piling more pesticides on crops will help farmers, or the environment, in the long run. The ultimate solution is not to fight against nature with the use of harmful chemicals, but rather to work with it, and even learn from it, embracing the natural tools already in existence to keep pests in check: namely, wildflowers.
Wildflowers Could Slash Pesticide Use
Wildflowers are home to many beneficial insects, including lacewings, ladybugs, hover flies and parasitic wasps, the latter two of which are natural predators to common crop pests like cereal leaf beetles and aphids. While some farmers have experimented with planting wildflowers around the border of their crops, the Center for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) in the U.K. is taking things a step further, initiating a five-year trial that will sow wildflower strips into the center of crops in 15 farms and evaluate the results.5
“Lining the perimeter of a farm with wildflowers asks that the beneficial insects leave this habitat and to trek into the fields to chow down on their prey. But most of the good guys aren’t particularly mobile,” Modern Farmer explained.6
The new in-field stripes, however, make it easier for the beneficial insects to move about the fields and reach all the way to the center. The wildflower stripes also go beyond another method of natural pest control known as beetle banks, in which raised strips are planted tussock and other grasses to attract ground beetles. According to CEH:7
“In-field wild flower strips move beyond beetle banks in a number of important ways. Perhaps the most important is that their focus is on supporting diverse communities of predatory and parasitic insects that kill pests. Research increasingly suggests that complex communities of predators and parasitoids are the most effective at controlling pests.
Rather than just promoting predominantly ground active predators, we need to support those in the canopy or those that target internal pests living in stems or seed pods. By sowing specific grasses and wildflowers we can target the resources provided by in-field strips and normal field margins to benefit the greatest diversity of important predators.”
Wildflower Strips Work to Naturally Ward Off Pests
The CEH study builds off research published in 2015, which planted flower strips along 10 winter wheat fields and compared the outcome with fields planted with wheat control strips. The results were promising, showing strong reductions in the density of cereal leaf beetles (CLB), a major cereal pest in Europe, Asia and North America, as well as plant damage caused by them.8 In fact, the fields with wildflowers had 40 to 53 percent lower beetle density and 61 percent less beetle damage compared to the control fields.
“Our study demonstrates a high effectiveness of annual flower strips in promoting pest control, reducing CLB pest levels below the economic threshold. Hence, the studied flower strip offers a viable alternative to insecticides,” the researchers wrote.9
Past research has also shown wildflower strips can help to naturally control pest aphids in lettuce crops,10 while they have the added benefit of attracting beneficial pollinators. One study revealed the frequency of pollinator visits was 25 percent higher for crops with adjacent flower strips compared to those without.11
“The in-field flower strips … provide early season pollen and nectar resources for important crop pollinators, such as bumblebees and solitary bees,” CEH noted. “In this respect they should provide dual benefits — enhanced natural pest control and crop pollination.”12 The fact that wildflowers serve two beneficial purposes stands in stark contrast to the increasing use of pesticides, which is furthering the emergence of superweeds and insects while decimating beneficial pollinators.
One study involved 18 years of U.K. wild bee distribution data for 62 species, which were compared to amounts of neonicotinoid use in oilseed rape, a crop grown to produce canola oil. The researchers found evidence of increased wild bee population extinction rates in response to systemic pesticide (neonicotinoid) seed treatment. Overall, about 50 percent of the total decline in wild bees was linked to the pesticides.13
Scientific Adviser to UK Government Calls for ‘Pesticidovigilance’
A growing number of experts are calling for increased caution in the use of pesticides, particularly since no limits exist on how many total pesticides can be pumped into the environment, and with virtually no monitoring, it can be too late before the environmental and human health toll is fully realized. This includes Ian Boyd, a chief scientific adviser to the U.K. government.
In a report published in the journal Science, Boyd and colleague Alice Milner of Royal Holloway University London called for “pesticidovigilance” and wrote, “The current assumption underlying pesticide regulation — that chemicals that pass a battery of tests in the laboratory or in field trials are environmentally benign when they are used at industrial scales — is false.”14,15 Meanwhile, research has shown that many farmers could slash pesticide use without hurting production.
In a study of nearly 1,000 French farms, there was no conflict seen between low pesticide use and high productivity and profitability in 77 percent of the farms. Further, the researchers found 59 percent of them could cut pesticide usage by 42 percent without harming their production. Forty percent of these farms would even improve their production as a result.16,17 The findings are eye-opening, especially since the pesticide industry has long maintained that their products are necessary to feed the world.
Farmers will also have to be convinced that their crops can flourish without the chemicals, which will require access to unbiased information along with a “cultural shift,” according to Bill Parker, director of research at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. As he told The Guardian, “The majority of crop protection advice given in the U.K. is from agronomists tied to companies who make their money from selling pesticides … There is a commercial drive and they will tend to take a prophylactic approach.”18
Pesticides Accumulate in Wildflowers if Used in Combination With Pesticides
There are still potential problems with planting wildflowers amongst conventional farming fields, particularly the potential for contamination. Neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticides on the planet. As systemic pesticides, the chemicals are taken up by the plants and contaminate flowers, nectar and pollen.
The majority of soybean, corn, canola and sunflower seeds planted in the U.S. are precoated with neonicotinoid pesticides, even though treating soybean seeds with neonicotinoids provides no significant financial or agricultural benefits for farmers19 and the chemicals have been blamed for declines in pollinators in the U.S. and elsewhere.
What’s especially concerning is that research suggests pollinators are being exposed not just via the crops themselves but also via nearby wildflowers. In a 2015 study published in Environmental Science & Technology, researchers pointed to neonicotinoid residues in wildflowers as a potential route of chronic exposure for bees:20
“[T]hroughout spring and summer, mixtures of neonicotinoids are … found in the pollen and nectar of wildflowers growing in arable field margins, at concentrations that are sometimes even higher than those found in the crop. Indeed, the large majority (97 percent) of neonicotinoids brought back in pollen to honey bee hives in arable landscapes was from wildflowers, not crops.”
Again in 2016, researchers noted that “noncultivated plants present a season-long route of pesticide exposure for honey bees,”21 and pollen from crop plants made up only “a tiny fraction” of the total pollen collected by the local bees. Researchers believe the bulk of the neonicotinoids applied to seeds end up in the surrounding soil and water, where it accumulates over time, leaching into bodies of water and being taken up by nearby plants, including wildflowers.22
This means that plans to add wildflowers to conventional crop fields could potentially backfire and end up exposing pollinators to increased levels of pesticides — unless efforts are made to slash pesticide usage at the same time.
Chemical Trespassing — Farmers Paid Through Monsanto Funds
A growing number of organic farmers are also suffering from what amounts to “chemical arson” as their crops are damaged by their neighbors’ pesticide drift. In Clarksville, Missouri, farmers Mike and Carol Brabo, who supply organic produce to a 150-member community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, suffered $300,000 in crop losses and lost half of their beehives when a nearby farm sprayed pesticides that drifted onto their land.23
On top of the crop and bee losses, the farm’s Certified Naturally Grown certification was suspended due to the contamination, and they estimate it will take them three years and $1.6 million to remediate the damage and regain the certification. The scenario echoes the growing problem with dicamba drift, which has damaged an estimated 3.6 million acres across the U.S.
Numerous states launched measures to prohibit dicamba sprayings, farmers suffered financial losses and, in some cases, neighboring farmers turned against one another as crops were damaged by the drifting chemical. But with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continuing to allow the use of dicamba on Monsanto’s GE dicamba-tolerant crops, albeit with some restrictions, some farmers feel they’re being forced to buy the GE seeds, just so they can survive their neighbors’ chemical sprays.24
Monsanto has even offered cash back to farmers who purchase its XtendiMax with VaporGrip, a dicamba variety that is supposedly less prone to vaporization and drift, designed for use with its GE dicamba-resistant seeds. The chemical typically costs farmers about $11 per acre, but Monsanto will give farmers $6 cash back when they use it on their dicama-tolerant Xtend soybeans.
Not only will the cash-back offer encourage more farmers to purchase XtendiMax with VaporGrip but also Monsanto’s GE seeds to go along with it. At the same time, it will reduce the likelihood of farmers turning to one of Monsanto’s competitors, as both BASF SE and DowDuPont sell dicamba-based herbicides as well.
The shrewd marketing decision will likely amount to an economic windfall for Monsanto and a major blow to the environment. In 2017, about 4 percent of the 90 million acres of soybeans planted in the U.S. had signs of damage due to dicamba.25
It’s not the first time Monsanto has incentivized the use of more harmful chemicals to farmers by offering cash back. In 2010, the company offered farmers $6 cash back per acre if they sprayed their Roundup Ready crops with at least two other herbicides aside from Roundup, which was a failed attempt to stave off glyphosate-resistant weeds.26
Wildflowers and Other Regenerative Agriculture Techniques Are the Answer
It’s clear that pesticides are not the answer to solving world hunger; they’re a contributor to environmental and human-health demise. The answer is a steady move toward regenerative agricultural techniques like crop rotation, mechanical weeding, planting of cover crops and wildflowers and other nonchemical forms of pest control to successfully lessen pesticide use and restore soil health.
Such strategies work, and research published in Nature Communications suggests that converting conventional cropland to organic reduces pesticide usage and, when combined with other changes like cutting food waste and cutting back on CAFO meat, “can contribute to feeding more than 9 billion people in 2050, and do so sustainably.”27 You can help on an individual level as well, by supporting organic farms and choosing organic food as much as possible, along with reducing pesticide use at your own home.
Swap out toxic pesticide and lawn chemicals for organic weed and pest control alternatives or, better yet, get rid of your lawn altogether and plant a wildflower meadow or edible organic garden. Wildflowers, by their very nature, are easy to grow, and planting them in your yard will give you the same benefits that farmers reap: reduced pests and increased beneficial insects and pollinators — not to mention their natural beauty. In the video below, you can learn how to plant a wildflower meadow virtually anywhere.