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Berm Outreach Day: The importance of enhanced non-crop habitat for beneficial insects in intensive agricultural landscapes

by Dillon Muldoon, MSc student


Me on one of my newly planted berm research plots. Photo by Jenni Dunning.

While driving up highway 400 for that cottage getaway in the Muskokas, you’ll pass by a little slice of Ontario agriculture on some of the darkest soil you’ve ever seen. But be careful: If you blink, you might miss this beautiful place known as the Holland Marsh. Located 50 km north of Toronto, the Holland Marsh is known for its intensive production of carrots, onions, and over 60 other horticultural crops. The Marsh contributes over 1 billion dollars to the Ontario economy through the production, processing, and shipment of vegetables.

For my MSc project, I’m looking at ways to enhance ecosystem services in the Holland Marsh. Ecosystem services are benefits humans gain from ecosystems, which can include water and air purification, carbon sequestration, agricultural pest management, and crop pollination. My research specifically focuses on enhancing non-crop areas so that they can provide better habitat for pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests. Studies show that the enhancement of “naturalized” non-crop areas (e.g., hedgerows, field margins, riparian areas, mowed grass) with vegetative and floral plantings can help support the abundance and diversity of beneficial insects within an intensive agricultural system. The habitat provided for these beneficial insects can offer several ecosystem services to growers, from pollination of crops to assisting with crop pest control. Until recently, the Holland Marsh had almost no non-crop habitat. In 2010 the Holland Marsh Drainage System Canal Improvement Project was initiated, and at its completion in July 2016, 19 km of canals had been relocated and dredged, and 10 km of berms (dykes) had been expanded to improve safety and efficiency. This expansion of the berms increased the amount of non-crop habitat in the Holland Marsh. My study investigates how different vegetative enhancements on the canal berms might affect beneficial insect complexes and agricultural pest populations at the Holland Marsh. I’m using both active and passive trapping to assess the abundance and diversity of natural enemies, pollinators, and insect pest populations in two different vegetative enhancements throughout the growing season.

Me at Berm Day explaining the importance of non-crop habitat. Photo by Jenni Dunning.

Although vegetative enhancements can be beneficial, stakeholders were concerned about the possibility that the enhancements could provide a refuge for pests (e.g., insects, weeds, vermin) and that they may not be aesthetically pleasing. To address these concerns, I orchestrated a public and grower outreach day (Berm Day) on July 5, 2019 with help from funding by the Entomological Society of Ontario. The goal of Berm Day was to connect with the public and growers about the importance of enhancing non-crop habitat to support beneficial insects in intensive agricultural systems. I hoped to create a dialogue surrounding the importance of ecosystem services, and to disseminate some of my findings. My study has shown that vegetative enhancements support a greater abundance of natural enemies than the natural berm vegetation and increase floral resources for pollinators. The enhancements have not provided a refuge for primary insect pests of the crops grown at the Holland Marsh.

Overall, Berm Day was a great success. I connected with local growers, members of the public, master gardeners, conservation authorities, and members of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs, over some fresh baked goods and coffee. We opened a dialogue about the project and shared ideas for future research, including management approaches and new seed mixes to improve the aesthetics appeal of the plantings. Everyone who attended left with a package of Ontario Native Seed Mix to plant at home, which was generously provided by Syngenta’s Operation Pollinator Multifunctional Landscapes.

I have heard once or twice that diversity is the spice of life, and within an intensive agricultural system, it can play an important role by offering numerous benefits for both growers and natural ecosystems. The conservation and enhancement of non-crop habitat can help provide ecosystem services in the Holland Marsh by increasing and supporting beneficial insects.

A special thanks to all the volunteers, advisors, the Muck Crops Research Station’s staff, Paul Hoekstra, and the Entomological Society of Ontario for making this day possible.