Opinion: Farmers need to appreciate the role of beneficial bugs

It was a strange looking creepy crawly that drew my attention to this serious disfunction within British farming.

The story starts with a well-respected farmer asking for help to identify a bug. The farmer reaches out to Twitter for assistance.

The respondents, who are evidently much more au fait with invertebrates than I, offer up a number of potential names.

The six-legged beast with an abdomen resembling a skinny black raspberry, segmented and hairy, was in fact a ladybird larvae.

See also: Protect beneficial insects to control wheat pests

Alarm bells should ring. Farmers and agronomists are familiar with every active ingredient that kills weeds and pests, but cannot identify beneficial insects that inhabit the same field.

I am rather embarrassed that I didn’t know my arachnids from my Coleoptera, and assumed that everyone else knew that I was of low bug intellect.

Much in the same way that I avoided the gaze of my school physics teacher in the vain hope that he wouldn’t ask me a question, I avoided discussing “beneficials” among a group of conservation agriculture enthusiasts for fear of being found out. 

But here’s the thing. It’s all very well trumpeting the importance of pollinators and beneficials, and chastising farmers who subscribe to the prophylactic use of insecticides, but it is too simplistic an approach. 

We need far greater knowledge and understanding of predatory insects. If we don’t know which beneficials do what and what beneficials do which, how are we to promote them? 

Don’t get me wrong. Blindly wafting multiple applications of synthetic pyrethroids in the vain hope of killing the sole surviving cabbage stem flea beetle not yet resistant to cypermethrin is to my mind the worst type of farming.

It is both ignorant and arrogant. However, farming for the catchall “beneficials” isn’t perfect either and smacks of a holier than thou approach.

If we are to encourage peers not to spray insecticide unless absolutely necessary, we need a much more compelling grasp of their value.

What habitat supports the predatory insects we wish to encourage? Which are the most active, breedable and superior to our foe?

I am not just referring to worm huggers like myself who are pro no-till and conservation agriculture.

All arable farmers should know how to (and wish to) promote predatory insect and beneficials numbers.

We must have a better comprehension of how an increase in the numbers of goodies affects the population of the baddies before summoning the 40m bug buster out of the shed.

And let’s not kid ourselves. Assessing thresholds of pests as a metric of whether or not to spray an insecticide is like trying to find an online retailer in the yellow pages. It is out of step with modern, smart thinking.

I have quizzed a number of trainee agronomists and agriculture students recently. Broadly speaking, their knowledge of different types of beneficials and understanding of the complexities of soil health are mediocre at best.

This is disappointing. Moreover, what I find disconcerting is the lack of ambition to seek a solution for infestation beyond the bottle.  

It is widely recognised that grass weeds cannot be controlled with sprays alone.

The wise accept that the continuum of low dose chemistry and a disregard for rotation expedited the pressure. So why have we not applied the same rationale to controlling invasive invertebrates?

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