Nesting habitat segregation between closely related terricolous sphecid species (Hymenoptera:Spheciformes): key role of soil physical characteristics
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Microhabitat selection based on abiotic factors was examined in five species of digger wasps (Sphex funerarius, Ammophila heydeni, Ammophila pubescens, Ammophila sabulosa, Bembix tarsata), four of which are of high conservation interest. All the study sites were located in areas affected by anthropogenic disturbance (reclaimed brown-coal mining areas, and railway dykes) in Central Europe. The individual species responded differentially to the variability in each of the physical characteristics measured, which resulted in site-specific exclusion of individual sphecid species. The sphecids were found to discriminate between available microhabitats based on ground inclination (slope) and vegetation cover. All but A. heydeni segregated the microhabitats according to the content of gravel and sand particles. S. funerarius and B. tarsata were limited by their preferences of low soil compactness, whereas A. pubescens utilized highly compacted soils, which were predominant in the study area. Soil shear strength (cohesiveness) was driving the level of gregariousness of the sphecids. In B. tarsata, number of cells per burrow was found to be higher in soils with increased penetration resistance. Experimental increase in soil compactness led to the abandonment of nesting microhabitats in the subsequent nesting seasons. Besides the well-known biotic factors, such as specialization at different size or type of prey, variability in abiotic factors between individual microhabitats (e.g. patches of sand) was found to be both necessary and sufficient to allow the parallel presence of viable populations of several sphecid species.