Opinion: Look after beneficial insects and they’ll look after you

Squishing insects, as any schoolboy will tell you, is oddly satisfying.

Not an activity for a grown-up environmentalist, of course, but Kent Wildlife Trust and the Buglife conservation charity have come up with a way to do it, in the interest of science.

Their “Bugs Matter” citizen science surveys get members of the public to clean their car number plates before making an essential journey.

These strong-stomached people then count the flying insects squashed on their plates after each trip using a (yes it really is called that) “splatometer” grid.

See also: How to measure insect numbers for integrated pest control

About the author

Paul Cobb
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Paul Cobb is a Kent-based independent environmental land management adviser and a partner in FWAG (Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group) South East.
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The findings show that the number of insects sampled on vehicle number plates across Kent reduced by 72% between 2004 and 2021.

In short, a Peugeot 206, one of the most popular makes of 2004, was well splattered with insect blood and guts compared with a 2021 Tesla electric Model 3, which is a cleaner car in more ways than one.

Although field labs on farms provide me with much valuable agri-environment information, I sometimes question the validity of “citizen science”, and I scratched my head on this one.

People driving more slowly to save fuel? Shiny, new insect-repellent number plates? More roads with lower speed limits?

Even allowing for such factors, and a degree of human error, it’s a startling drop and underlines the fact that insect numbers are declining everywhere.

Since insects pollinate most of the world’s crops, provide natural pest control services, decompose organic matter, and recycle nutrients into the soil, that’s pretty serious.

A strawberry grower I know said we should look after insects before anything else, because they are the building blocks, supporting everything in the food chain above them.

He said that while knowing from experience the damage insect pest species can cause.

Back to the field labs. Good evidence is coming out on the value to arable crops of the insect good guys – beneficials – and what resources they need.

Some of this is scientists working with farmers, like the Assist project that recently published its research findings, but a lot is farmers trying things out for themselves, with the support of the “professionals”.

Fruit growers may smile at this, as they’ve been doing it for years as part of integrated pest management (IPM) programmes, driven in part by the retailers, but also by a dwindling stock of approved chemicals and concerns over resistance.

And if your business needs pollinators and predators, you need places where they can live.

So there have been strips of wildflowers and “insect hotels” around the orchards of Kent for a long time, to go with the beehives and the spray programmes.

But we’re a long way from doing without pesticides in the fresh produce sector, where problems are legion and appearance is everything, while many arable farmers are now proud to boast of not spraying an insecticide. 

It is also true that many growers lack the space to provide much for their beneficial insects, while the broad-acre arable farmer can easily chuck in an acre or two of pollen and nectar mix.

Interestingly, there is a convergence of thinking here, as growers realise there is space in orchards – between crop rows – and arable farmers too start to put wildflower strips within their fields.

Either way, the beneficials have less distance to travel into crops – and no fast-moving number plates to end their journeys.

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