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Profits Bloom When Flowers Are Planted on Indian Farms

Butterfly and bee rest on flowers.
Credit: Ryan Carpenter/Unsplash
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Indian farms can be more productive when flowers are planted alongside crops, according to a new study.

After planting flowers alongside moringa trees in orchards in southern India, researchers increased the abundance and diversity of flower-visiting insects, ultimately improving pollination and boosting crop yield.

The study was the first of its kind to be conducted in India. Its findings were published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Nurturing moringa

The study was part of the TROPICAL project, an initiative led by the University of Reading to investigate how research evidence from the UK could be used in tropical landscapes, where pollinator dependent crops are grown.

The Reading team partnered with ecologists from the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, India, to test if moringa trees (which produce leaves and pods that are consumed as vegetables in India) would benefit from the extra pollinators that flowers entice.

“Planting wildflowers on agricultural land is a tried and tested method seen in many arable fields and orchards in the UK and across Europe. This farming technique is known to boost insect pollinator numbers,” said Deepa Senapathi, an associate professor of sustainable land management at the University of Reading.

“We worked with farmers in South India to design the best co-flowering crops and boost the numbers of native bees and other insect pollinators visiting the moringa orchards.”

Senapathi and her colleagues worked with smallholder farmers in the Kannivadi region of Tamil Nadu in India in 24 moringa orchards. They helped the farmers plant red gram and marigold flowers in 12 orchards. To act as a control group, 12 other orchards were left without co-flowering crops. 

Flower power

At the end of the study period, the orchards with flowers had attracted 50% more bees and other pollinating insects when compared to the orchards without flowers. The flower group also saw a 33% boost in biodiversity and showed better quality of crops, with bigger moringa pods.

Ultimately, numbers of harvestable moringa crops increased by 30% in the orchards with flowers, compared to those without. 

“Greater yields and higher quality fruit will translate to a healthier and better food supply for smallholder communities,” Senapathi added. “The farming communities can also use the red gram as a protein source in their diets and receive extra income from selling the marigold flowers.” 

Senapathi and her colleagues say that this practice of planting flowers could help some Indian farmers abandon intensive, harmful practices like using large amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which can harm pollinators and levels of biodiversity.

Smallholder farmers in the tropics, whose crops depend on native pollinators, are particularly vulnerable to these impacts. The results of this study, say the researchers, show how farmers can boost yields while also managing their lands in a more sustainable manner.

Reference: Dhandapani S, Pakkirisamy M, Rajaraman R, Garratt M, Potts S, Raj R, Subramanian M, Senapathi D. Floral interventions enhance flower visitor communities and pollination services in moringa plantations. Journ. of Appl. Ecol. 2023. Oct 3. doi:10.1111/1365-2664.14532


This article is a rework of a press release issued by the University of Reading. Material has been edited for length and content.