A new study published today (Wednesday, February 28) in the Journal of Applied Ecology has shown that bugs such as, hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds play an important role in keeping Britain’s apples healthy.

The research team, led by the University of Reading, included NIAB East Malling, Cranfield University and Syngenta found that only 48% of trees had fruit damage compared to orchards that had an 80% rate of damage that had no flowers.

Wildflower strips were planted around apple orchards to provide a habitat for predatory insects that prey on pests that deform and damage apples.  

In 2020, 200,000 tonnes of dessert apples worth £158 million were produced in the United Kingdom.

The two-year study, suggests that farmers could harvest up to an additional 2,420kg/ha (6.9%) of undamaged apples by installing flower margins on orchards.  

Margins for better harvest

The study used large, mature wildflower margins more than 5m wide and included grasses and flowers chosen to supply year-round food sources.

Flower margins had been established next to five dessert apple orchards in the UK by Avalon Produce, Worldwide Fruit and the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

This gave time for ‘diverse communities’ of predatory insects to build up.

Ladybird eating rosy apple aphids. Source: University of Reading

The research team discovered that flower margins reduced not only the spread of aphids on trees, but also how many fruits were attacked on infested trees.

Lead author from the University of Reading, Charlotte Howard 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 study shows that apples near flower borders had over one third less chance of fruit damage, even during peak aphid outbreaks.

Significant reductions in damaged crop extended up to 50m into orchards from the floral habitat.

Simple conservation measures like dedicating an area for wildflowers could reduce reliance on pesticide sprays over the long-term, according to the researchers, allowing pollinators and bio-control insect species to thrive supporting sustainable food production.