More plant diversity means less pesticide for agriculture

11 November 2020

Bee on flower in grasslands
Diverse plant communities provide multiple benefits and can help control herbivore pests. Image: Anne Ebeling

Increasing plant diversity naturally controls plant-eating insects in grasslands, according to a study led by University of Waikato Senior Lecturer Dr Andrew Barnes and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research.

Plant diversity provides less favoured food for insects and supports their natural predators like spiders and beetles. The study, published in Science Advances, shows increasing plant biodiversity could help reduce the need for pesticides in agriculture.

The team of researchers used two long-running grassland biodiversity experiments in Germany and the US. They collected data from these areas over two years, studying the natural food webs in monocultures (areas with a single plant species) and biodiverse grasslands.

Dr Barnes says the news is very relevant for New Zealand agriculture. “Our findings demonstrate how conserving biodiversity in production landscapes could help balance environmental and economic benefits through natural biological control of pests,” he says.

“Supporting agricultural production by enhancing natural pest control could be one way to help achieve favourable biodiversity outcomes while supporting primary industries in Aotearoa.”

Biodiversity – the biological diversity of all species on Earth – is crucial for maintaining ecosystems in planted and natural grasslands. With agriculture intensifying to feed the world’s growing population, grasslands are under pressure to support more crop production and livestock.

Insect herbivores cause an estimated 18-26% loss in global crop production, which has driven significant growth in the use of environmentally harmful pesticides. The intensification of agriculture and pesticide use is reducing biodiversity in many parts of the world.

Over the course of two years, the scientists collected data from two analogous grassland experiments, including the Jena Experiment in Germany. Image: Matthias Ditscherlein

Plant-eating insects prefer monocultures

The researchers found insects consume significantly less plant matter in areas with high diversity. Their feeding rate (per gram of plant biomass) was 44% lower than in monocultures.

In diverse plant communities, specialised insect herbivores are less likely to find their preferred plant species and may move on to other areas. Previous research has shown lower levels of nitrogen in these plant communities, making them less nutritious for insects.

“That ultimately means that where multiple species are planted together, this will yield more total plant biomass per square meter, and each individual plant in diverse mixtures will receive lower damage from herbivores,” says Dr Barnes.

Insects’ predators benefit from plant diversity

In species-rich grasslands, arthropod predators like spiders, beetles and wasps also increased notably in both their total biomass and feeding rates. One explanation could be that diverse grasslands present more habitat for predators,  providing benefits like reducing their chances of being eaten by birds and mammals.

“In other words, more diverse plant communities pose a double-edged problem for herbivores—that is, more predators and less preferred food—that could help to naturally reduce herbivore impacts,” says Dr Barnes.

Black bean aphid and lady beetle. Image: Christoph Scherber

Plant diversity can limit pest outbreaks

Heavy use of insecticides can lead to rebounds of herbivore pests by destabilising their natural enemies. “Our experiments show that conserving plant diversity provides multiple benefits for controlling herbivore pests which could play a key role in reducing inputs of agrochemicals and enhancing plant productivity,” says Dr Barnes.

“Moving forward, we will be focusing on understanding how biodiversity enrichment in New Zealand agricultural systems could enhance herbivore pest control under future climate change scenarios.”

The paper, Biodiversity Enhances the Multitrophic Control of Arthropod Herbivory, was authored by:

  • Andrew D Barnes, University of Waikato
  • Christoph Scherber, Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig
  • Ulrich Brose, German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research
  • Elizabeth T Borer, University of Minnesota
  • Anne Ebeling, Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena
  • Benoit Gauzens, German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research
  • Daren P Giling, University of Canberra
  • Jes Hines, German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research
  • Forest Isbell, University of Minnesota
  • Cristian Ristok, German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research
  • David Tilman, University of Minnesota
  • Wolfgang W Weisser, Technical University of Munich
  • Nico Eisenhauer, German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research

This research aligns with the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals:

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