Supporting wild pollinators in agricultural landscapes through targeted legume mixtures

Lorna J. Cole*, John A. Baddeley, Duncan Robertson, Cairistiona F.E. Topp, Robin L. Walker, Christine A. Watson

*Corresponding author for this work

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Abstract

Insect-pollinated legumes are rich in plant-based proteins making them a vital constituent of sustainable healthy diets for people and livestock. Furthermore, they deliver or support a range of ecosystem services that underpin agricultural production and their prevalence in agricultural landscapes is likely to increase. Under typical implementation and management, the value of legumes to pollinators has, however, been questioned. Through exploring a range of legume crops, grown as monocultures and mixtures, this study aims to identify multifunctional legume cropping systems that optimise forage availability for a diversity of wild pollinators whilst delivering a wide range of agronomic and environmental benefits. This study innovatively explores legume mixtures concurrently with monocultures of the component species using replicated small-plot field trials established in two geographical locations. Observational plots assessed the richness and abundance of floral resources, and wild pollinators (i.e. bumblebees and hoverflies) throughout the peak flowering period. Densely flowering, highly profitable legumes (e.g. Trifolium incarnatum and Trifolium mixes) supported abundant and rich pollinator assemblages. The functional makeup of floral visitors was strongly influenced by flower structure and hoverflies, with their shorter proboscises, were largely constrained to legumes with shallower corolla and open weed species. Floral richness was not a key driver of pollinator assemblages; however, clear intra-specific differences were observed in flowering phenology. Combining functionally distinct legumes with respect to flower structure and phenology, will support a wider suite of pollinating insects and help stabilise the temporal availability of forage. For highly competitive legumes (e.g. Vicia faba and Vicia sativa), planting in discrete patches is recommended to reduce the risk of less competitive species failing in mixtures. Legumes can provide valuable forage for pollinators; however, they fail to meet all resource requirements. They should therefore be used in combination with agri-environmental measures targeted to promote early-season forage (e.g. hedgerows and farm woodlands), open flowers for hoverflies, saprophytic hoverfly larval resources (e.g. ditches and ponds) and nesting habitats (e.g. undisturbed field margins).

Original languageEnglish
Article number107648
JournalAgriculture, Ecosystems and Environment
Volume323
Early online date30 Sep 2021
DOIs
Publication statusFirst published - 30 Sep 2021

Keywords

  • Agri-environment schemes
  • Bumblebee
  • Functional diversity
  • Hoverfly
  • Legumes
  • Nitrogen-fixing crops
  • Pollinators
  • Sustainable agriculture

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