University of Reading-led research highlights positive role for wildflower strips in the nation’s orchards

Bugs including hoverflies, lacewings and ladybirds play an important role in keeping Britain’s apples healthy, a new study has shown.

Apples in the orchard

Apples in the orchard

The two-year project was led by a research team from the University of Reading, and published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. It indicates that growers could harvest up to an additional 2,420kg per hectare (6.9 per cent) of undamaged, premium apples by installing flower margins on orchards.

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

In the study, flower margins were established next to five dessert apple orchards in the UK, with the researchers finding that only 48 per cent of trees had fruit damage, compared to 80 per cent in orchards without flowers.

The research team included NIAB East Malling, Cranfield University and Syngenta, with flower margins established in orchards by Avalon Produce, Worldwide Fruit and the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

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.”

Good margins for better harvests

The study utilised large, mature wildflower margins more than five meters wide and included grasses and flowers chosen to supply year-round food sources. The long-established nature of the margins gave time for diverse communities of predatory insects to build up. 

The research team found that flower margins reduced not only the spread of aphids on trees, but also how many fruits were attacked on infested trees. Apples near flower borders had over a third less chance of fruit damage even during peak aphid outbreaks. Significant reductions in damaged crop extended up to 50 meters into orchards from the floral habitat.

Simple conservation measures like dedicating orchard-edge habitat for wildflowers could reduce reliance on pesticide sprays over the long term, the researchers claimed, adding that allowing pollinators and biocontrol insect species to thrive supports sustainable food production.