Prophyta | Flower mixtures as food-to-go for insects

Biodiversity, climate change and the survival of pollinators are trendy topics nowadays. In many countries, initiatives are being proposed to save the wild flora and to support bees and butterflies. A ‘honey highway’ on roadsides, dikes, industrial estates and fallow ground could be part of the solution. EconSeeds is specialized in creating seed mixtures that serve as food-to-go for these indispensable critters.

Worldwide, insect numbers are plummeting
according to a global scientific review published in Biological Conservation. More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

Apart from the influence of climate change and the detrimental effects of the use of insecticides, insects starve due to a lack of sufficient flowering plants. Bees visit flowers for pollen and nectar, butterflies for the nectar and as a food source for their caterpillars. They eat next to nothing else, so blooming flowers are crucial for the survival of these beneficial insects.
And humankind does need them. Between 75% and 95% of all flowering plants on earth – among which 1,200 food crops – need pollinators to propagate. Especially bees make excellent pollinators, as pollen is the only source of protein that they feed to their developing offspring.
In the Netherlands, half of the 360 species of wild bees are in danger of disappearing completely and the same trend can be observed in other European countries. Governments all over the world are well aware of the essential role pollinators play for food production, saving biodiversity and mankind’s wellbeing. Countless initiatives from all sides are taken to save bees, butterflies and hover flies. Providing them with nutritious food is a basic requirement and that is what EconSeeds is specialized in.

The history of EconSeeds is short. It was only in 2008 that Hans Veenstra took over the economy seed range,


The eis Insect Knowledge Centre, together with the Butterfly Foundation, has conducted research on behalf of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management into the occurrence of butterflies, bees and hoverflies in the Honey Highway. The Honey Highway initiative provides food for bees, butterflies and other pollinators. So far, 500 kilometres of roadsides have been transformed to ‘flower ribbons’. The verges along one of the busiest motorways were sown in 2015 and have since developed into herbaceous vegetation with 38 types of flowers. In the study, the Honey Highway is compared with verges a little further along the highway that have been constructed in the same way, but have not been seeded. The spontaneously emerged vegetation there consisted of 28 types of flowers in 2019.
Last year, almost three times as many butterflies were found on the Honey Highway as on the control verges. The verges seem to be a success, especially for the group of farmland butterflies. Such high numbers of the brown sand eye (Maniola jurtina) and European common blue (Polyommatus icarus) were found that it is likely that these species reproduce in the Honey Highway. The hay bug (Coenonympha pamphilus), which is quite rare in the area, also turned out to have found its way to the verge. Hoverflies show a similar result: considerably more were found in the sown flower strips than in the spontaneously developed verges.
The Honey Highway was less successful for bees. They preferred to stay on the control verges. Since 2017, the number of bees in the Honey Highway has actually decreased, while it increased in the control verges. Because wild bees have a limited radius of action (several hundred meters), it is important that the nest and food are close to each other. However, the Honey Highway now consists of high and dense vegetation and therefore offers food but little nesting space. There is more open sand in the control verges, where bees can dig their nests.
In addition to sowing with a suitable flower mixture, it is therefore also important that the verges are well managed. In the Honey Highway, areas with open sand could be created locally to make the flower ribbons more accessible to bees again. The study also found that the flowering roadsides (both sown and unsown) were richer in pollinators than the surrounding grasslands. Therefore, both types of roadsides have added value in a flower-poor environment.

Flowers pollinated by butterflies are often red or orange, because those colours attract butterflies

pollinator hotel attracts beneficial insects

when the renowned Dutch flower seed company Kieft Seeds was purchased by Ball Horticulture. Both the op flower varieties as well as the contract flower and vegetables seed production came into his hands. Eight years later, the French company Bertrand, famous for its flower mixtures, was added and last year hm Clause’s flower mixtures completed the colourful palette.
“In total, we have over 1,200 varieties of annual and perennial flowering plants,” says Hubert Keller, commercial director of EconSeeds in Hoogkarspel, the Netherlands. Where Hans Veenstra has earned his spurs as seed production manager, Hubert Keller is focused on company development. The third person to complete the picture is Pierre Byache, who is responsible for composing the 170 different mixtures in the seed production facilities in the Loire Valley, France.
EconSeeds has thirty employees, half of which work in the facilities in France and the other half in the Netherlands. The company is growing steadily and they just moved to new, larger and more suitable accommodation. In France, the company owns several production locations in the surrounding area of Angers. Furthermore, there are about 150 growers in the Loire valley region who produce seeds, and many more in Chili, India and China.
Part of the Bertrand collection is also available as organic seeds. Six of the mixtures and 25 varieties of flowers meet the international organics standards. Among the seed mixtures, EconSeeds has introduced
a selection of edible flowers and aromatic herbs, used to decorate plates and to spice up summer salads. In addition, there are three organic varieties for the pharmaceutical industries: cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) against rheumatic conditions, Californian poppy (Eschscholzia cal.) against sleeplessness (hence the Dutch common name ‘nightcap’) and marigold (Calendula officinalis) with anti-inflammatory characteristics.
Seed cleaning is done mainly in France. Batches are then sent to the Netherlands where the seeds are tested for germination in our laboratory, with stateof-the-art equipment. The next stage is to assemble packages of seed mixtures for professional, as well as consumer use according to the ‘recipes’ Pierre has provided us with,” explains Hubert Keller. At present a brand-new seed mixing machine is operating in the Netherlands.

“The art of creating mixtures is to assemble varieties that fit well together, create a nice picture, with plants of diverse sizes and produce flowers during different seasons. A single mixture may contain over 40 species, combining high diversity and a good balance of species, which develop day after day to create a natural and colourful environment,” explains Pierre Byache. Not only to ensure visual pleasure to people, but also as a continuous source of food, as insects are picky creatures.
“For instance, bees are attracted by borage (Borago officialis), also known as starflower, for its rich amount of nectar, but sunflowers and single corn flowers are also popular. Some wild bees are, however, highly specialized and are focussed on just a few species.

EconSeeds has over 1,200 varieties of annual and perennial flowering plants to choose from to create their 170 different flower seed mixtures for professional as well as amateur use

Butterflies on the other hand do not only need their food security, they also seek out plants to safely lay their eggs on and feed the caterpillars. Corncockle (Agrostemma githago) is among their favourites.” Flowers pollinated by butterflies are often red or orange, because those colours attract butterflies. “Creating new varieties is not really necessary, with the vast number of varieties already in our possession. Only if a colour becomes less sparkling, do we actively select the brightest flowers to propagate.”
Ville fleurie
It is not only the insects’ preferences Pierre Byache has to take into account. As EconSeeds sells flower mixtures around the globe, the natural conditions such as soil, climate, shade or direct sunlight have to be taken into account. And the consumers’ preferences of course. “The French market for ornamentals is well developed,” says Hubert Keller. There are many ‘villes et villages fleuris’ (flowery cities and villages) in France. Hanging flower baskets in the streets, colourful roundabouts planted with annuals and perennials and brightly coloured flower beds in the parks are a common scene. It all started in 1959, when the French state launched a contest to enhance the attractiveness of urban areas. Successful communes are awarded with a badge showing one to four 47 flowers. Today nearly 5,000 cities have attained the ‘ville fleurie’ status. They display their flower badge on road signs as you enter.
“The demand changed from ornamental plants to seed mixtures, as budget cuts forced local authorities to look for a new approach to the contest. The Bertrand collection was superbly suited to be used in an urban environment,” according to Hubert Keller.
“Today, many roundabouts and parks are floral paradises for insects, thanks to flower mixtures.” The French consideration for the protection of bees is not restricted to urban areas.
anses, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety, has made recommendations aimed at strengthening the regulatory framework for the protection of bees and other pollinating insects. EconSeeds supports this strategy. Last summer, EconSeeds took over the complete catalogue of seed mixtures of hm Clause, which possessed seed mixtures especially designed to be used on roadsides and fallow fields in the countryside.
Honey highway
In the Netherlands, the interest in flowering plants is as yet lagging far behind. Most local governments of cities and villages use easy to maintain grass and shrubs to provide their citizens with a green environment, only coloured by stray daisies and dandelions. However, this attitude is changing fast. “Flower mixtures are a growing market in the Netherlands,” Hubert Keller observes. One of the reasons is the initiatives to help the bees survive. For instance, during the last five years, over 500 kilometres of roadsides, dikes and railway tracks have been planted with flower mixtures, creating a honey highway, as this initiative is called.
The seed mixtures the Dutch government opts for must consist of plants that are attractive to insects, but should also be native to the area, thereby promoting biodiversity. It fits within the EU’s biodiversity strategy for 2030, which aims to reverse the degradation of ecosystems and manage them sustainably, addressing the key drivers of biodiversity loss. Using the carefully assembled flower seed mixtures of EconSeeds seems to fit in perfectly with this plan. ❦

This is an article that was published in the Prophyta 2022. If you are intrested you can download the full magazine below.

Prophyta 2022

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