Improving the diversity of local pollinators might help both the environment and cotton farmers. Recent research published in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems, & Environment showed that increasing the variety of pollinator species can dramatically increase crop yields on cotton farms.
Cotton is one of the most valuable crops in the world and Texas alone is responsible for producing about a quarter of all cotton in the United States. Researchers from the University of Texas in Austin wanted to know if improving pollinator diversity would also improve crop yields. They conducted control experiments in which outside pollination was limited in addition to GIS analysis and local diversity surveys. The researchers found that a better diversity of pollinator species was directly linked to higher crop yields. In South Texas, improving pollinator diversity could result in an estimated 18% cotton production increase, adding an additional $108 USD an acre in annual revenue. This amounts to an extra $1.1 million USD a year in the area the researchers studied.
Cotton fields can bloom without outside pollination but the researchers found that cross-pollination increased the average sizes of cotton bolls. Overall, they found that areas with more pollinators resulted in better crops.
The researchers had some recommendations for cotton farmers looking to increase the biodiversity on their farm. Planting wildflowers near cotton plants is an easy way to attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Planting other flowering crops as part of a rotation is also useful. The authors also found that leaving some land “wild” near their crops can help. These areas of natural land cover attract a wide range of pollinating species to the cotton plants, provided they’re within about 250 meters. The authors also recommended reducing the use of pesticides during the day because that’s when most pollinators are active.
Increasing natural biodiversity is good for the environment and local ecosystems. According to this new research, it also makes sense economically. Cotton farmers can take steps to attract and support local pollinator species, helping the planet while increasing their own crop yields and revenue.
Sarah Cusser et al, Natural land cover drives pollinator abundance and richness, leading to reductions in pollen limitation in cotton agroecosystems, Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment (2016).