Throughout history, traditional viticulture was practiced in multifunctional ecosystems. The vineyards shared a space with other plant species, insects, and animals which interacted with each other on a natural basis.
This scenario offers the perfect definition of what is known as biodiversity: the sum of various forms of life and the interactions between them (between species, within the ecosystem and habitat). Each one of these organisms is part of a whole and interacts with all of the others in reciprocal fashion, as well as with the air, water, and soil.
Biodiversity is essential to the natural services that ecosystems provide: health, well-being, food, and fuel, to name a few.
If we look at the wine and grape sector specifically, its profitability directly depends on one of the natural services provided by an ecosystem, namely the production of grapes.
At this time, the biodiversity of agricultural ecosystems is under considerable pressure due to intensive farming. Vineyards often display a similar level of simplification when it comes to their ecosystems and their biodiversity.
The lack of biodiversity not only affects grape production but also other natural services such as soil fertility, organic matter content, carbon storage, and the biological control of undesirable organisms.
Seen from a broader perspective, biodiversity loss has a negative impact on various aspects of human well-being, including food security, vulnerability in the face of natural disasters, energy security, and access to clean water.
With this in mind, how can we improve the biodiversity of our vineyards?
In a vineyard, our long-term goal should be to create a balanced and diverse environment, in other words, a habitat that is as complete as possible. The Global Nature Foundation recommends a series of measures to encourage biodiversity and competitiveness in the wine and grape sector.
The use of hedgerows – lines of naturally growing trees or bushes – help diversify the landscape and provide a natural habitat for beneficial animals. They reduce erosion and act as barriers that prevent the spread of pesticides.
Sown or naturally occurring plant cover between the vineyard rows improves soil fertility and also reduces erosion. Stone walls provide a refuge for birds, reptiles, and certain beneficial insects.
The proximity of vineyards to forests and scrubland fosters the on-going presence in the ecosystem of beneficial organisms that are important to the protection of threatened species.
In terms of the fauna of the vineyard itself, insects such as ladybugs are natural predators of harmful insects like mites. Adult flies and their larvae often play an important role in pest control.
Nabids, which include damsel bugs, represent a large and diverse family of predatory insects, making them particularly interesting for the vineyard. They are general predators that catch almost any other kind of smaller insect and may even cannibalize each other when no other food is available.
Arachnids, specifically spiders, are also useful when it comes to pest control. For example, spiders that weave round webs feed on the flying insects that get caught in their threads.
Bees are without a doubt the most important pollinators of the agricultural world. They ensure our food supply and security, sustainable farming, and biodiversity, as well as making a significant contribution to mitigating climate change and conserving our environment. By pollinating, they increase agricultural production, thereby maintaining the diversity and variety in our fields and on our plates.
The role of bees in the vineyard is currently taking on greater importance.
This is perfectly illustrated by the crowdfunding initiative of the Chêne Bleu wine estate to support research projects aimed at showing the link between the quantity of bees and the quality of the wine.
Although grapevines are capable of self-pollination, Nicole Rolet explains how ‘research has shown that the best wines are produced from soils that are full of life’. According to the director of Chêne Bleu, ‘the biodiversity of cross-pollination and a nutrient-rich microbiome are the ultimate contributing factors to the long-term health of the vineyard and the flavour complexity of the wines, eliminating the need for synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in the vineyard’.
Even so, bee populations are in steep decline, especially in Europe. This decrease is mainly due to the greater presence of predators such as mites, the lack of insects that would control the proliferation of such predators, and the use of agrochemicals that are harmful to bees.
Birds are another group of animals of vital importance to the vineyard. Not only do they control pests, they also help conserve the ecosystem. For instance, the diet of the coal tit, a bird commonly found throughout Europe, mainly consists of insects that are harmful to the vineyard.
The initiative Campos de Vida (fields of life) of the Fundación Fire shows how the presence of coal tits in the vineyard protects the estate from the dreaded grapevine moth, thereby avoiding the use of chemical pesticides in the vineyard and enhancing the quality of the resulting wine.
Last but not least, rodents play a direct role in the regeneration, growth, and composition of plant species by contributing to the scattering of spores and seeds. Other small mammals that feed on insects, such as the hedgehog, are especially helpful in protecting against pests.
As we have seen, protecting the biodiversity of our vineyards is essential, not only in order to make quality wines, but to preserve and maintain the natural services that ecosystems provide.
Despite ambitious global objectives, biodiversity is still in decline, and we urgently need to find a balance that allows us to maintain the appropriate vegetative growth of the vines while ensuring the necessary variety of living organisms to sustain the interconnected fabric of life as we know it. Anything is possible as long as we start to actively implement change!
Marta Juega, PhD