New research project examines the potential role of refuge habitat in supporting beneficial insects.
By Amy Wu
he beetle bank on the farm is sprouting wildflowers and weeds. This past spring the bank – a 1000-foot unploughed strip that cuts across the width of a crop field which rotates through corn, soybeans, and small grains — was started on the farm. The bank was seeded with native bunch grasses, such as Indian Grass, Little Bluestem, and Big Bluestem, and a variety of native wildflowers.
Over the coming years, these perennial plants should replace the annual weeds which thrive in tilled soil. Beetle banks are meant to provide year-round habitat for beneficial ground beetles; these beetles might then disperse out into adjacent crops where they could help control weeds and/or insect pests. Farmers can receive USDA cost-sharing for the installation of beetle banks. Conrad Vispo and Claudia Knab-Vispo, researchers with the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program and co-coordinators of the Farm Hub’s Applied Farmscape Ecology Research Collaborative, are leading the new research project. Jess Furlong of SUNY Cobleskill is also a collaborator on the project where she plans to examine above ground insects and spiders using sweep netting and visual surveys.
“The idea is if this (beetle bank) stays unplowed and you have plowed the land on either side of it, then in the spring those creatures that have overwintered in the beetle bank may move out into the adjacent fields and provide their services to the farmer,” Knab-Vispo explains.
She continues: “Aside from perhaps providing agronomic benefits, these banks might also help support on-farm insect, bird and plant biodiversity. Nonetheless, such banks can also harbor farm pests, including groundhog. We hope this work lets us better understand their net effects, not only on above-ground organisms but also on soil quality. The concept of beetle banks originated in Great Britain, and we don’t yet understand how useful they are here in the Hudson Valley. We hope our work contributes to an understanding of their regional utility.” Vispo expects data sets will be made available in three to five years.
Anne Bloomfield, manager of the Applied Farmscape Ecology Program, says that corn often faces pest and weed issues and thus serves as a good gauge in exploring the connection between the beetle bank and threats of pest and disease. She notes, “the idea is to study if trying to create habitat for beneficial beetles would both bring them and result in them possibly consuming weed seeds and pests.”
As autumn moves closer researchers will decide whether any mowing and weeding are needed, otherwise, we just hope the beetle bank sleeps peacefully,” she says.