Aspects influencing the release and establishment of the flowerbud weevil, Anthonomus santacruzi Hustache (Coleoptera : Curculionidae), a biological control agent for Solanum mauritianum scopoli (Solanaceae) in South Africa.
Solanum mauritianum (bugweed, woolly nightshade) is a perennial tree native to South America that has invaded many countries including South Africa and New Zealand. In South Africa, after 143 years of naturalization, the plant is ranked as the country‟s sixth worst weed and has invaded 1.76 million ha. Invaded areas include agricultural lands, forest plantations, water courses and conservation areas, especially in the eastern higher rainfall regions. The success of the spread of this weed is due to its production of very high numbers of bird-dispersed seeds. Since conventional control methods are unsustainable in the long term, the weed has been targeted for classical biological control since 1984. Following exploration work in its native range, biological control experts recommended that agents that are able to limit the weed‟s reproductive potential would help to manage the spread and invasiveness of this weed. Anthonomous santacruzi, a flower-feeding weevil found throughout the native range of the weed, was imported and tested between 1998 and 2002. Following approval for its release in South Africa in 2007, a new colony was imported and propagated at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Pietermaritzburg. This study was initiated to investigate aspects that could influence the release and establishment of this agent. Three aspects were investigated namely: (1) reassessing the weevil's host range to confirm that the new colony is not different from the colony tested originally and to assess the risks associated with the release of the weevil in New Zealand; (2) surveying the arthropods associated with S. mauritianum in the field to identify groups of predators that could interfere with the establishment of the weevils as well as to investigate, through laboratory-based trials using spiders as surrogate, the impact of these predators on the survival and proliferation of the weevils; and (3) propagation and release of the weevil and monitoring of its establishment. Host-specificity tests revealed that the host range of new colony is not different from that of the originally tested culture. In no-choice trials, the weevils fed and reproduced on some non-target Solanaceae species but reverted back to S. mauritianum in the choice tests. Although the risks for releasing the weevils in New Zealand were calculated to be very low, additional evidence is needed to demonstrate this conclusively. Future research to provide this evidence includes open-field trials complemented with a chemical ecology study, to resolve the case of two species, a New Zealand native and South African native, which have shown higher risks in comparison to the other tested species. For arthropods associated with S. mauritianum in the field, Araneae (especially Thomisidae), Thysanoptera, Hemiptera (especially Miridae) and Hymenoptera (especially Formicidae) were identified as generalist predators that could interfere with the establishment of A. santacruzi. However, their numbers in the field appear to be too low to provide a major threat. Also, laboratory trials using spiders as a surrogate suggested that A. santacruzi populations can survive and reproduce in the presence of such predators. The weevils were released at four sites in KwaZulu-Natal and monitoring of three of these has confirmed establishment at the warmest site along the South Coast but not at the coldest site in the Midlands. Further releases in the province are intended to complement these promising results, while additional studies are intended to facilitate the weevil's release in New Zealand.
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