Beneficial insects save an estimated $4.5 billion per year for American farmers.

Researchers at North Carolina’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems are trying to up that ante by developing a number of plant species that fit into farming systems in the Southeast and increase the number of beneficial insects and improve the environment without negatively affecting crop production.

“The trend in the Southeast is to plant more acres, and in some cases from fence row to fence row. In cases like this growers tend to lose some of the synergism created by the mixing of beneficial insects, wildlife, parasites and pollinators,” says North Carolina State Entomologist David Orr.

He is part of research team from North Carolina State University working on ways to enhance the value of predators and parasites on the farm. Seeding plants that provide a food resource and a good environment to over-winter is one way to enhance the value of beneficial insects, Orr adds.

“The whole idea is to reclaim some of the diversity of the landscape that is lost when farms go to large expanses of the same crop. Research indicates that once you lose 20 percent of the natural vegetation in a farm landscape, you begin to lose the services of natural predators, parasites and pollinators,” he says.

The cost of losing this balance of nature is high. From an ecological standpoint native species of wildlife begin to disappear, which further diminishes the value of beneficial plants, often leaving farmers with no other option than synthetic pesticides.

Under current production practices, which are vital to producing the quality and quantity of crops needed to feed the world, it would be virtually impossible to continue to build production without the use of these materials.

Each year U.S. farmers spend an estimated $1.5 billion on insecticides to protect their crops. Without insecticides some crops would lose up to 70 percent in yield losses and over the entire crop spectrum, the loss of crop value would be catastrophic for U.S. growers.

The Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) is not trying to replace the use of insecticides. The beneficial insect and habitat improvement projects under way at the Center are geared to providing some natural deterrents to harmful insects, giving growers some management options to augment their use of insecticides.

Simply adjusting tillage can provide some help in reducing dependence on insecticides to manage insects.

In studies across the Southeast, insecticide costs under conservation tillage are $50-$100 per acre less than conventional crop management, across the board on a large number of crops.

By using Bacillus thuriengsis and other naturally occurring insect control tools growers can reduce the use of pesticides that can reduce natural predator populations.

By planting cover crops on field edges and in other non-crop areas, farmers using non-conventional production practices  can increase the number of beneficials and improve crop production in unison with reduced insecticide use.