Establishing pathways of energy flow for insect predators using stable isotope ratios: field and laboratory evidence
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Quantifying pathways of energy transfer between plants, pests, and beneficial insects is a necessary step toward maintaining pest stable agroecosystems in the absence of chemical subsidies. A diet switching experiment utilizing a predatory ladybird beetle, Hippodamia variegata (Goeze), evaluated the use of naturally occurring stable C and N isotopes as an economically feasible and safe method for quantifying pathways of energy flow within agroecosystems. Stable isotope values of the ladybird beetle Coleomegilla maculata lengi (Timberlake) collected from an agroecosystem were used to estimate the relative amount of C and N derived from agricultural plants and incorporated by ladybird beetles based on mass balance equations. At the beginning of the diet-switching experiment δ13C and δ15N values of H. variegata (–12.0‰ and 6.3‰, respectively) differed by –0.2‰ and 2.9‰ from the aphids that were provided exclusively as their diet. These data are consistent with previous estimates of trophic level isotope effects. After switching the diet of H. variegata to an alternative food, isotope values of H. variegata gradually shifted toward expected values for individuals fed this diet (–22.9‰ and 8.8‰ for δ13C and δ15N values, respectively). Isotope values of another ladybird beetle, C. maculata, collected from the field indicated that in May, alfalfa and maize (pollen) obtained in the previous year contributed 32% and 68% of the C or N to the diets of these individuals and in August, 52%, 6%, and 42% of the C or N assimilated by these insects was derived from alfalfa, wheat, and maize, respectively. These data are consistent with expectations based on the relative abundance of C. maculata in various crops during the season. The field and laboratory data are a clear indication that isotope values are sensitive to dietary changes on a relatively short time scale (days) and provide a strong basis for the use stable C and N isotope to trace energy flow patterns of these beneficial organisms within agroecosystems.
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