GAINESVILLE, Fla.—When it comes to controlling insect pests on crops, some farmers are saying hello to birds.
“We have found an environmentally friendly way that may help control insects that feed on crops, and it’s literally for the birds,” said Kathryn Sieving, an associate professor with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “By planting sunflowers near valuable crops, we can attract birds that feed on insects.”
While many growers believe that birds themselves could be a source of major crop damage, that’s not always the case, Sieving said.
“In fact, most of the birds we’ve observed on north central Florida farms feed on insects,” she said. “More than 200 species of nongame birds are found on farmlands in the United States, and only about 10 of them cause major crop damage, which leaves 190 species that are potentially very helpful.”
Moreover, concerns that the sunflowers themselves would attract damaging insects are unfounded, Sieving said. Most of the insects associated with sunflowers are beneficial, ranging from those that pollinate crops to predators such as bees, wasps and assassin bugs that may help control insect pests.
Greg Jones, a graduate student working with Sieving in UF’s wildlife ecology and conservation department, said sunflowers can also be a cash crop for farmers.
“The sunflower species in our research are the types that can be sold as cut flowers in retail outlets and farmers’ markets,” Jones said. “In addition to harvesting the flower stalks, growers can harvest the seed for bird food or market the seed to others who want to grow sunflowers.”
Another plus is the seasonal nature of the sunflowers, Jones said. Sunflowers grow quickly, and they create a hedgerow that can be taken down or replanted easily. The habitat they provide is used by migratory birds and year-round bird populations.
“Sunflowers may make it easier for migrating birds to find shelter, especially when they have a critical need for a safe place to rest and feed before going on,” Jones said.
The potential value of birds on farms was first documented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1885, and many of these early findings are still useful on modern farms, he said. Federal ornithologists found that the majority of birds on farms benefit growers by eating insects and weed seeds.
“Our data suggest that encouraging the presence of insect-eating birds should help rather than hinder farm production,” Jones said. “While we have not yet demonstrated scientifically that the sunflower-bird connection can reduce insect damage to crops, we hope we will find this to be the case in the future. Then bird-friendly farms may not need to rely so heavily on pesticide applications.
“Of course, sunflowers won’t rid a farm of injurious insects, but they might enable a farmer to use less pesticide, becoming an important part of an overall integrated pest management plan,” he said.