Field ecology and impact of the seed-feeding beetle Acanthoscelides macrophthalmus, a biological control agent of the invasive tree Leucaena leucocephala, in the KwaZulu-Natal coastal region.
Sharratt, Morag Elizabeth Jessie.
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Introduced for agroforestry, the Mexican tree Leucaena leucocephala (Fabaceae) has become invasive in several tropical and subtropical regions worldwide. In South Africa, the most notable infestations are located in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) coastal region. A seed-feeding beetle, Acanthoscelides macrophthalmus, originally imported from Mexico, was released in South Africa to control the plant’s excessive seed production and has become widely established in the KZN coastal region. By sampling plant populations monthly at selected field sites in this region, this study was intended to determine the: (i) seasonal (monthly) abundance of the beetle populations; (ii) levels of seed damage inflicted in relation to seed production by the plants; (iii) extent to which the beetle has recruited native parasitoids; (iv) incidence of non-target effects; and (v) ability of the beetle to regulate/control plant populations or limit their spread. Beetle numbers fluctuated greatly between months and between sites, resulting in erratic levels of seed damage ranging from 2-60%. Although ripe pods were available to the beetles throughout the year at one of the four study sites, this was not the case at the other three sites where ripe pods were virtually absent from November to January. High numbers of undamaged seeds found on the soil surface indicated the extent to which the seeds escape beetle predation. Parasitism of the beetle’s larval/pupal stages by native parasitoids was variable and relatively high (up to 40%). Ten species of parasitic wasps were reared from beetle-infested seeds, the most important of which originated from native Acacia plants. There were no instances of non-target effects involving the seeds of native Acacia species. There was a strong positive relationship between wasp numbers and beetle-infested seeds, indicating that the relationship is not incidental, and that the beetle has been adopted by the wasps as a new host. The relationship between the percentage of seeds damaged by A. macrophthalmus and seed availability was inversely density-dependent, with higher rates of seed damage occurring when fewer seeds were available. This negative relationship between seed damage and seed availability, as well as the relatively low levels of seed damage recorded, suggest that the beetle’s impact is negligible. The addition of other seed-feeding or seed-reducing agents to the L. leucocephala system may result in a more significant contribution from A. macrophthalmus.