The disproportionate value of 'weeds' to pollinators and biodiversity.

Published online
24 Jun 2022
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Balfour, N. J. & Ratnieks, F. L. W.
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Agricultural intensification has been implicated in global biodiversity declines. In the European Union, agri-environmental schemes are designed to address this. For pollinating insects, funding has been provided to sow wildflower mixes. However, previous research indicates that a suite of agricultural weeds are also of great importance to pollinators. Here, we compare the biodiversity associated with the species which are considered harmful to agricultural production and legally deemed as 'injurious' by the United Kingdom 1959 Weeds Act (common ragwort Jacobaea vulgaris, creeping thistle Cirsium arvense, spear thistle C. vulgare, curled dock Rumex crispus and broadleaved dock R. obtusifolius), with plant species recommended for pollinator-targeted agri-environmental options. In our field study, the abundance and diversity of pollinators visiting the weed species averaged twice that of the recommended plants and included the main insect orders (Coleoptera, Diptera, Hymenoptera and Lepidoptera). This relationship was also seen in a meta-analysis of literature data, which indicates that fourfold more flower-visitor species and fivefold more conservation-listed species are associated with the weeds. Additionally, the literature shows that twice the number of herbivorous insect species are associated with these plants. We suggest that several factors are responsible for this pattern. Injurious weed species are widely distributed, their flower morphology allows access to a wide variety of pollinator species, and they produce, on average, four times more nectar sugar than the recommended plant species. Freedom of information requests to public bodies such as local councils, Natural England and Highways England indicate that c. £10 million per year is spent controlling injurious weeds. Meanwhile, the cost of the four pollinator-targeted agri-environmental options in the United Kingdom exceeds £40 m annually. Synthesis and applications. Our results clearly show that weeds have an underappreciated value to biodiversity. Unfortunately, current UK agricultural policy encourages neither land sparing for nor land sharing with weeds. The UK government is, however, currently committed to overhauling agricultural payments to encourage more wildlife- and climate-friendly practices. Thus, the challenge of reconciling the conflicts between agricultural production and these native and biodiverse species should be a renewed priority to land managers, researchers and policymakers.

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