Top-down suppression of arthropod herbivory in intercropped maize and organic farms evidenced from δ13C and δ15N stable isotope analyses

  • Nickson Erick OtienoEmail author
  • James Stephen Pryke
  • Mike Butler
  • Shayne Martin Jacobs
Research Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Pest control


Maize is a globally important cereal crop and a staple in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is predominantly grown by small-scale farmers. Its production, however, is undermined by numerous herbivorous arthropods, and agrochemicals used for controlling such pests are increasingly unaffordable. Farmers therefore require cheaper, effective and environmentally sustainable pest management alternatives. This study explored the hypothesis that boosting habitat heterogeneity through organic farming and intercropping enhances arthropod predator-herbivore feeding linkages that naturally suppress herbivory across non-Bt maize fields. To test this, δ13C and δ15N stable isotope analyses were conducted to establish feeding pathways from maize, legume intercrops, and marginal vegetation, through arthropod herbivores and predators across 15 small-scale maize fields in western Kenya. Farming and cropping systems’ roles in trophic linkages were also assessed. Feeding connections and plant food source contributions to arthropod consumer diets were subsequently determined using Bayesian mixing models, and predator relative efficiencies also evaluated. The results showed significantly stronger predator-herbivore trophic linkages within intercropped than monoculture fields, while farming system showed no effect. Herbivores showed stronger connections to crops than to noncrops, suggesting higher vulnerability for crops. For predators, earwigs derived most basal carbon from maize; wasps and predatory beetles, from legumes; ants, from both maize and legumes; and spiders, from both crops and noncrops. Ants and earwigs are important in maize herbivore regulation, particularly for intercropping; wasps and predatory beetles for regulating legume herbivores; and spiders for whole-field herbivore regulation. Most studies have focused on single species at single-trophic levels, but here we demonstrate, for the first time in sub-Saharan Africa, application of stable isotope analyses to characterize multitrophic feeding interactions that indicate effective agronomic practices for fostering top-down arthropod herbivore suppression in non-Bt maize fields. The results are useful in prescribing field practices with low-impact habitat management for sustainable small-scale agriculture rather than pesticide-based arthropod herbivore control.


Ecosystem service Food-web Climate-smart agriculture Sustainable development 



We greatly thank the farmers and local County administration in Kakamega for permitting our access to the farms for sampling, and assistants Esther and Benson for their diligent work in the field. We also thank iThemba LABs Isotope Laboratory at Witswatersrand University for facilitating isotope analyses, Nairobi Museum for specimen identification support, and G. and C. Benson for the project funding.


This research was funded by private funds of Mr. and Mrs G. Benson with additional support from Stellenbosch University, and had no grant number.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© INRA and Springer-Verlag France SAS, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Conservation Ecology and EntomologyStellenbosch UniversityStellenboschSouth Africa
  2. 2.National Museums of KenyaNairobiKenya
  3. 3.iThemba LABS Isotope LaboratoryUniversity of WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa

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