Not all droughts are created equal? The effects of stress severity on insect herbivore abundance Academic Article uri icon


  • © 2016, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht. Predicting interactions between drought and plant–insect interactions has been a challenge. Currently, we are unable to accurately predict herbivore abundance on stressed plants despite over 500 publications and half a dozen formal hypotheses. With drought predicted to increase in severity with climate change, determining herbivore abundance on stressed plants is critical for continued agricultural and natural system management. During drought, plants increase concentrations of nutrients and also suffer from water loss. Many empirical studies test drought on plants using severe continuous stress, but studies suggest drought may benefit herbivores when it is intermittent (pulsed). In our study, we tested intermittent and severe stress on herbivore and arthropod abundance in a cotton agro-ecosystem. Our goal was to determine how these types of drought influence herbivore abundance on stressed plants and the relationship between herbivore abundance and stress-related nutrients. We found that intermittent and severe water-deficit stress had different effects on insect herbivores, signifying that drought severity influences herbivore abundance. Piercing–sucking herbivores such as thrips, stink bugs, and leafhoppers were more abundant on intermittently stressed plants than on severely stressed plants. Drought did not significantly affect chewing herbivores, and their abundance was inconsistent on stressed and well-watered plants. Furthermore, nutrient concentrations were similar between stressed and unstressed plants, but herbivore abundance was greater on intermittently stressed plants, suggesting that other physiological characteristics of stressed plants and herbivore feeding ecology must be considered. Our study suggests that the drought severity must be considered when predicting herbivore abundance on stressed plants.

author list (cited authors)

  • Sconiers, W. B., & Eubanks, M. D.

citation count

  • 14

publication date

  • February 2017