Bring back beauty and the bees... with wildflowers mingled in your crops

British and Swiss ag researchers are testing the benefits of wildflowers in field strips, around field borders and unused fencerows as a way to attract beneficial insects. It's also a way to amplify the attraction for pollinators like honeybees and bumblebees. That raises an idea: How about including more flowering species in field strips dedicated to wildflowers, or even mingled with small grain plantings?

March 3, 2018   By Jerry Carlson — One of the most impressive statistics in the presentations of North Dakota no-till farmer Gabe Brown is his comment that for every insect pest, healthy agriculture offers 1,700 beneficial insects. The helpful bugs compete and constrain the damaging ones. Gabe was citing Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, a world-famous entomologist who left his USDA research post when government tried to muzzle his research on neonicotoids. If you haven't seen or heard Gabe Brown, here's a 16-minute You Tube summary of Gabe's key points, from a TED talk.

Blending wildflowers with crops became more appealing over the past year, when our grandson, now 9 years old, started raising honeybees. Honey from hives here on the home farm tastes more exquisite than any honey we've ever bought — even the most costly organic honey from nearby Iowa producers. Then I saw a report from Britain on wildflower strips being tried there and in Switzerland (photo below). It's one of many projects of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, a function of the British Natural Environment Research Council. Here's a link to their report, which notes: "This is something the ASSIST programme (Achieving Sustainable Agricultural Systems) has now begun to trial on a large scale in the UK. Scientists are sowing flower strips in the crop on a number of commercial farms and testing the results over the next five years. The concept being tested in the UK builds on work undertaken in Switzerland by researchers Matthias Albrecht and Matthias Tschumi."

And yesterday we saw the news of a major European Union study which documents massive evidence that neonicotoid pesticides are one of the main killers of honeybees.  On our own acres, our fields were virtually humming with bees. That arose from a combination of two beehives, plus fields of flowers raised by another grandson. We also began seeing bird species which haven't visited here since we built this place some 40 years ago, amid a sea of corn and soybeans.

Wildflower strips in small grains, Britain

So the idea popped up: What benefits would grow from adding some wildflowers into small grains?  Could flowers be sprinkled into a summer interplanting with a row crop, and provide July through September nectar for bees? More practically, how about permanent wildflowers in field borders, giving up a combine width or so of land for the sake of appealing to beneficial creatures? 

There are even more choices of wildflower species than there are of cover crop species. Many moons ago, our daughter Jennie wrote a feature story for us in LandOwner newsletter describing WildSeed Farms, which raises wildflower seed on 200 acres near Fredericksburg, Texas. They've been marketing seed worldwide for some 35 years. Closer to home for us is Seed Savers Exchange of Decorah, northeast Iowa, which also has wildflower seed. 

Since thinking on fun ideas creates a chain reaction, that raised another idea: If you get proficient at raising wildflowers as part of an integrated pest management program, how about pushing that further — and harvesting seed for sale. That looked even more promising when I priced some wildflower seed: Typically about $12 for 4 ounces, which would work out to $2,400 per bushel of 50 pounds.

Here's another image from an article encouraging field flower strips, appearing in Natural News: