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Why birds could be key to protecting Costa Rican coffee

Horticulturists all over the world are aware of the importance of companion planting and encouraging natural pollinators into growing areas. However, a new study focusing on Costa Rica has suggested that it may be important to think about the entire ecosystem and predation chains in order to beat pests – something that could be particularly important for coffee producers.

A team from Stanford University in California travelled to the country to investigate birds, the coffee berry borer beetle and their impact on bean crops.

This type of beetle originated from Africa, but it has spread to almost every coffee-producing region in the world, causing problems in doing so. The female insects burrow directly into coffee berries to lay up to 50 eggs and the resulting larvae eat the berry from the inside once they emerge.

It can cost farmers up to 75 per cent of their crops, something that could ruin an entire year's work for many landowners.

The research team, led by conservation biologist Daniel Karp, first cleared borer beetles from a plantation area to see what crops could be expected without the pests. They then allowed infestation and recalculated yields. Finally, they covered coffee bushes with fine mesh to stop birds getting to them but allow beetles to thrive.

It was found that without the birds, borer infestation nearly doubled. When birds were allowed in, the yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia) significantly reduced damage by the pest.

The study – published in Ecology Letters – suggests that farmers who work to encourage certain birds, for example, by growing forest corridors, could save thousands of dollars each year.

Appealing to the farmers, Dr Karp said: "We know that native wildlife can provide you with a pretty significant benefit. Incorporating their conservation into your management of pests is absolutely something you should do."

Deforestation has been a big problem for Costa Rica, but this research could help to reverse the trend and help coffee growers the natural way.

Matthew Johnson, a conservation ecologist at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California found that birds have in fact been shown to protect the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee crop from the coffee borer beetle.