Wildflower strips in orchards can increase apple yields

Planting wildflower strips around apple orchards could help growers harvest an additional 2.4t/ha of damage-free apples and reduce reliance on pesticide sprays, according to new research.

Wildflower strips provide a habitat for predatory insects such as hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds, which play an important role in keeping Britain’s apples healthy.

A recent trial carried out by the University of Reading to investigate the effects of flower margins on pest attack in five UK apple orchards found that only 48% of apples trees experienced fruit damage in the flower-enriched orchards, compared with 80% in the standard orchard.

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Flower margins not only reduced the spread of aphids on trees, but also how many fruits were attacked on infested trees.

The two-year study

In 2020, 200,000t of dessert apples worth £158m were produced in the UK.

The two-year study, published on Wednesday, 28 February in the Journal of Applied Ecology, suggests farmers could harvest up to an additional 2,420kg/ha (6.9%) of undamaged, premium apples by installing flower margins on orchards.  

The study used mature wildflower margins more than 5m wide and included grasses and flowers chosen to supply year-round food sources, providing opportunity for diverse communities of predatory insects to build up. 

Apples near flower borders had more than one-third less chance of fruit damage during peak aphid outbreaks. Significant reductions in damaged crop extended up to 50m into orchards from the floral habitat. 

Simple conservation measures such as dedicating orchard edge habitat for wildflowers could reduce reliance on pesticide sprays in the long term. Allowing pollinators and biocontrol insect species to thrive can help support sustainable food production. 

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.” 

The research team included Niab East Malling, Cranfield University and Syngenta. Flower margins were established on orchards in the UK by Avalon Produce, Worldwide Fruit and the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.  

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