In dense field of soybean alfalfa plants, a lady beetle perches atop a plant, looking for aphids to prey on, unknowingly serving an indispensible role to the ecosystem and health of the plants. But just as in any other ecosystem, a host of factors compromise the lady beetle and its role—some more unexpected than others.
Traditionally, factors like climate and temperature are the easiest to observe when zoological studies are conducted on an ecosystem. However, what if there are other aspects which should also be closely examined? The University of Wisconsin-Madison zoologist Brandon Barton’s latest study demonstrates an example of this.
Barton and his students conducted experiments involving varying wind speeds on soybean alfalfa plants, leaving some in the open and some with wind-barriers. What Barton found was how the wind had an indirect effect on soybean aphids which are typically pests who are detrimental to the alfalfa plants.
While the aphids themselves were not directly affected by wind speeds, Barton’s experiments illustrated how Asian Lady Beetle density on the alfalfa plants corresponded inversely with wind speeds. High wind speeds bend the plants over, and the lady beetles are unable to adhere to the plants like the aphids do and are blown away.
In his study, Barton and his students noticed a marked decrease in the number of lady beetles on the plants with higher wind speeds, but the aphid population remained consistent.
Since the lady beetle preys on the soybean aphids, higher density of lady beetles, when allowed by the winds, benefits the alfalfa plant by diminishing the aphid population.
This phenomenon indirectly lowers the aphid population by creating lower wind speeds. This could, in theory, largely benefit the plant health and at the same time indirectly benefit other organisms in the beetle’s ecosystem who are consuming the plants.
“Reducing the number of aphids could eliminate the need for pesticides and in turn this could make the alfalfa plants more organic,” Barton said.
And with the burgeoning trend of organic, all-natural foods over the recent years, this method could potentially make a tremendous difference in the organic produce market, making organic, pesticide-free produce more accessible all around and driving the price down.
But Barton says that while this is plausible in theory, there are still many other factors to take into account with this field of study. For example, “how wind may affect the abundance and behavior of other predators remains unknown,” said Barton. Thus his study remains not without limitations.
Still, Barton’s study poses potential advancement in that it opens up an entirely new lens to examine the natural world through. More research on the topic, with more factors of climate change taken into account and explored, could one day change the face of both the natural world and our impact on it. And while Barton says his study is just a start, it without a doubt leaves many doors open.