Restructuring of Lepidoptera communities by introduced Vespula wasps in a New Zealand beech forest
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Introduced social wasps (Vespula vulgaris) reach high densities in some New Zealand beech forests, because honeydew provides an abundant high-energy food source. We manipulated wasp density to estimate an “ecological damage threshold” for large, free-living Lepidoptera larvae. There will be a continuum of ecological damage thresholds for wasp density depending on the prey species or habitat. Experimentally placed small caterpillars had a significantly higher survival rate than large caterpillars, and the survival rate of both groups decreased with increasing wasp density. Spring-occurring caterpillars have a probability of surviving of 0.90–0.95, assuming wasps are the only source of mortality. However, at the peak of the wasp season we predict caterpillars would have virtually no chance (probability of 10−78 to 10−40) of surviving to adults. Wasp abundance must be reduced by at least 88% to conserve the more vulnerable species of free-living caterpillars at wasp densities similar to those observed in our study sites. This equates to a damage threshold of 2.7 wasps per Malaise trap per day. It was exceeded for about 5 months of the year in non-poisoned sites. There are currently no biological or chemical control techniques available in New Zealand that will reduce wasp abundance below this damage threshold throughout the year. Our models show that most Lepidoptera with spring caterpillars will be able to persist, but species with caterpillars occurring in the peak wasp season will be eliminated.
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