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Student Researches Natural Ways to Help Oranges Flourish in Spanish Orchards

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A University of Worcester researcher is investigating whether encouraging the humble ladybird into Spanish orange orchards could improve crop yields.

Alice Mockford’s three-year study in Huelva, southern Spain, explores whether natural insect predators, such as the ladybird, can help regulate pests and therefore protect fruit from damage, reducing the need for insecticides.

She hopes her study, funded by the University of Worcester, supermarket chain Waitrose and fresh fruit supplier Primafruit Ltd, could enable growers to produce high quality fruit with a reduced environmental impact.

“I am very excited to be involved in this novel project and to be researching a topic which can have an impact on such an important agricultural system,” said Alice.

Citrus crops can be affected by a range of different pests, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and insects, which reduce yields and fruit quality. However, so-called ‘natural enemies’, such as ladybirds, could help reduce outbreaks of insect pests.

Alice said: “Over the past century many ecosystems have been modified through intensive farming and urbanisation, and as a consequence we have lost some of the natural services that support agricultural production, like pollination and pest management by natural enemies.

“We want to harness these natural enemies to reduce the need for insecticide use in the future.

“By creating new habitat in otherwise intensively managed fields we can alleviate some of the pressures that farming has on the environment, and by doing so, restore some of the services that environment should provide naturally.”

Alice, who is studying for a PhD in the University’s Institute of Science and Environment, will combine field trials, establishing strips of wildflower and grass habitat in the orange orchards, and laboratory studies to develop the best strategy to reduce pests in the crops.

The entomology graduate will investigate the effects of a range of natural enemies on orange pests, but is particularly interested in limiting the California Red Scale, an insect which significantly reduces the market value of oranges because it damages the appearance of fruit.

Although Alice’s approach of creating new habitat is used in agricultural systems in the UK, her study is among the first to look at citrus fruit in the Mediterranean.

“Very little is known about how the plant species sown will respond in this situation,” she said.

She hopes that, in the long term, the results will be applied to other citrus fruits, including those grown in other parts of the world.

“Our reliance on insecticides is not sustainable, but the creation of new habitat to support natural enemies of insect pests will make cropping systems more robust and more resilient,” said Alice.

“The industry demands reliable and cost effective approaches to pest control and what makes this approach so attractive is that after the initial investment, the habitat created will provide continued support to growers for many years.”