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Increased area of a highly suitable host crop increases herbivore pressure in intensified agricultural landscapes

Tatyana A. Rand, Debra K. Waters, Sue L. Blodgett, Janet J. Knodel, Marion O. Harris
Agriculture, ecosystems & environment 2014 v.186 pp. 135-143
Bracon, Cephus cinctus, agricultural land, atmospheric precipitation, cropping systems, grasslands, habitats, herbivores, host plants, insect pests, natural enemies, parasitic wasps, parasitism, population density, wheat, Great Plains region, North America
Landscape simplification associated with agricultural intensification has important effects on economically important arthropods. The declining cover of natural and semi-natural habitats, in particular, has been shown to reduce natural-enemy attack of crop pests, but also in some cases reduced crop colonization by such pests. In this study, we examined the influence of changes in two elements of landscape composition, natural grassland cover and cover of a highly suitable crop host, on infestation by a generalist insect pest in wheat, and parasitism of this pest by its dominant natural enemies. Surprisingly, we found no significant influences of increasing natural grassland habitat, at either local or landscape scales, on infestation by the wheat stem sawfly, Cephus cinctus, or parasitism of this pest by the native parasitoid wasps, Bracon cephi and Bracon lissogaster. In contrast, we found significant increases in levels of C. cinctus infestation with increasing wheat cover at the landscape scale. This pattern was consistent across six study regions spanning three states in the northern Great Plains of North America, despite large differences in cropping systems and pest population densities across regions. Regional variation in pest infestation was best explained by long-term averages in precipitation, with higher C. cinctus infestation rates found in drier regions. Results suggest that landscape-mediated variation in pest pressure in this system is better explained by a direct response of pest insects to increasing cover of a highly suitable crop rather than an indirect response via reductions in natural enemies as natural habitat declines. The implication is that habitat diversification at the landscape scale could play a role in suppressing agricultural pest populations via reductions in area of suitable crop hosts.