Posts Tagged: wildflowers
Have you seen the blaze of super blooms popping up alongside orchards and field crops in our rich agricultural Central Valley? The corridors of poppies, tidy tips, yarrow, baby blue eyes, and redbud planted by farmers, dazzle us with color, but they serve a purpose, too.
The flowers provide nectar and pollen for the pollinators, including honey bees, bumble bees and carpenter bees. Look beyond the buzz, and you'll see other beneficial insects, such as lady beetles (ladybugs) and their larvae devouring aphids, and tiny parasitoid wasps preying on stinkbugs and armyworms. They're (unpaid) pest control agents at work.
Farmers are taking notice. Knowing that most beneficial insects rely on floral resources to survive and reproduce, they're bordering their field crops with strips of flowering plants. In addition to gaining pollination and pest control services, they're gaining financial benefits. University of California researchers documented that pest control and pollination benefits will help pay the cost of a 1,000-foot-long-flowering hedge planting within 7 to 16 years. Their research, Pest Control and Pollination Cost-Benefit Analysis of Hedgerow Restoration in a Simplified Agricultural Landscape, was published last year in the Journal of Economic Entomology.
Other benefits of field edge habitat plantings can include weed exclusion, air quality improvement, erosion reduction, wind protection, shade, and wildlife habitat.
What plants are best to attract beneficial insects to farms and gardens? The UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) has just published a list of insectary plants on its website. The list includes native California perennial flowering shrubs and wildflowers suited for field-edge plantings.
UC IPM defines insectary plants as “those grown to attract, feed, and shelter insect parasites (parasitoids) and predators to enhance biological pest control. Insectary plants provide nectar and pollen for adult natural enemies to consume. Even if pests are abundant, certain natural enemies may be less abundant, shorter-lived, or produce fewer offspring unless nectar and pollen resources are available. Insectary plants can also host alternate prey that will feed the natural enemies and keep them abundant locally.”
Are you concerned about rodents and food safety issues from hedgerows plantings? Not to worry. A recent study by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) researchers found minimal adverse influence on larger agricultural landscapes. A bonus: Migratory songbirds, like goldfinches, often seek out the seeds from the flowering plants in the hedgerows and offer their own display of color. What about weeds? Yes, they can be problematic. Be sure they're well-controlled before planting wildflowers; think soil solarization and herbicides.
Another UC ANR-associated study, Determinants of Field Edge Habitat Restoration on Farms in California's Sacramento Valley, published this year in the Journal of Environmental Management, found that landowners and farmers familiar with the benefits were more likely to adopt these small-scale habitat restoration plantings on their farms. Also important is technical support from agencies such as the USDA, UC Cooperative Extension Service, and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and the sharing of information from farmer-to-farmer and neighbor-to-neighbor.
Something else we can all do: Share your photos of field-edge habitat plantings and your observations on social media. They tell an important story and can inspire landowners to diversify farmlands. This will help drive home the point that providing flowers for beneficial insects, including bees and natural enemies, will build resilience in our farming systems. Natural pollination and pest control services help counter the disastrous effects of colony collapse disorder and other honey bee maladies, and pesticide resistance.
That old adage takes on more meaning when you plant wildflower strips on your farm. Wildflowers add resilience to our farming systems by providing bees with habitat and food - pollen and nectar. And they're not just for honey bees. Many native bees, such as bumble bees and blue orchard bees, are important crop pollinators. Currently about a third of our crops benefit from bee pollination. This includes vegetables, fruit and nuts, as well as crops grown for seed production, including sunflower, melon, and carrot.
Farmers primarily rely on honey bees for crop pollination; generally two colonies per acre are needed. Honey bees are efficient pollinators, but with colony collapse and increasing colony losses, we must diversify our farming systems so we don't rely solely on honey bees.
Some important native bee crop pollinators include bumble bees, sunflower bees, squash bees, mason bees (blue orchard bees, which pollinate almonds, are mason bees) and leafcutter bees.
The benefits of native bees? Generally they forage on flowers earlier in the day than honey bees do, they tolerate more wind and cooler temperatures and often they're more efficient at gathering and moving pollen from one flower to another. Native bees also prompt honey bees to disperse more, resulting in more pollinator efficiency. All this is important for good pollination and crop production, especially for crops like almonds that bloom in late winter when the weather is more unpredictable.
Many native bees, including squash bees, nest in the soil, generally excavating chambers about 12 inches deep, where they pack cells with pollen for their young. Bumble bees often occupy vacated rodent holes. Leafcutter bees nest in woody cavities, often taking advantage of old beetle galleries. Discing and land clearing removes their nesting sites and potential food sources, but if you add wildflower plantings and hedgerows of flowering shrubs on your farm, that brings them back. Farms with strips of flowers along field edges have higher numbers of native bees than those that do not. Honey bees also benefit from better nutrition from flowers, strengthening their resiliency to pests, diseases, and pesticides.
A recent study, Pest Control and Pollination Cost–Benefit Analysis of Hedgerow Restoration in a Simplified Agricultural Landscape, published by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) and UC Berkeley, describes the economic value of these plantings. Generally, a $4,000 investment to plant a 1,000-foot hedgerow of native California plants, takes about seven years to pay off from enhanced pest control and pollination services from natural enemies and bees (where honey bees are limiting). If cost-share funding is available from the USDA, this will reduce the investment cost for the restoration and time on returns.
Although habitat plantings are definitely beneficial, some farmers have expressed concern that these plantings will bring in more pests, including rodents, birds and weeds. However, current UC ANR studies show strips of flowers on field edges export beneficial insects into adjacent crops for enhanced pest control. The wildflower strips are too small to support large numbers of rodents or flocking birds that can damage crops (with the possible exception of ground squirrels and cottontail rabbits), and weeds requiring management are present regardless of field edge habitat.
Water? Although it's hot and dry out right now, many wildflowers do not need summer water. This includes Bolander's sunflower (great for songbirds like goldfinches, but the seeds should not be included in row crop mixes as they will cross-pollinate with our hybrid sunflower seeds), milkweed (great for monarch butterflies), vinegarweed, tarweed, gumplant, turkey mullein (doves love these seeds), and summer lupine. Bees, including natives and honey bees, thrive on these hardy flowers, especially now that the growing season is ending, and few crops are blooming.
Look for more information on wildflower and hedgerow plantings on the Hedgerow Hub website, , the Xerces Society website, and UC Davis fact sheet Habitat for bees and beneficials.
Networking is important too. A recent UC ANR survey showed that networking among growers, landowners, and conservation agencies is crucial in the adoption and implementation of new ideas, such as wildflower plantings.
Bottom line: Wildflower strips can ensure a healthy, sustainable food supply for crops that rely on bee pollination. “Bloom where you're planted” equals “Reap what you sow.”
The study, covered in TIME, LA Times, and elsewhere, was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It's based on 15 years of monitoring about 80 sampling plots at McLaughlin Reserve, part of UC Davis' Natural Reserve System.
"Our study shows that 15 years of warmer and drier winters are creating a direct loss of native wildflowers in some of California's grasslands,” said lead author Susan Harrison, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy and a member of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Conservation Biology workgroup. “Such diversity losses may foreshadow larger-scale extinctions, especially in regions that are becoming increasingly dry.”
The researchers confirmed that drought-intolerant species suffered the worst declines.
Similar trends have been found in other Mediterranean environments, such as those of southern Europe, bolstering the case for increased climate change awareness in the world's semi-arid regions.
Taken together with climate change predictions, the future grassland communities of California are expected to be less productive, provide less nutrition to herbivores, and become more vulnerable to invasion by exotic species, the study said.
The researchers expect these negative to cascade up through the food web—affecting insects, seed-eating rodents, birds, deer and domesticated species like cattle, all of which rely on grasslands for food.
Rescue effect may be too late
Grasses and wildflowers may be able to withstand the current drying period through their extensive seed banks, which can lie dormant for decades waiting for the right conditions to germinate.
However, California's drought is expected to intensify in the coming decades, so this rescue effect may end up being too late for some species.
Author: Kat Kerlin