Neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid causes outbreaks of spider mites on elm trees in urban landscapes.
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BACKGROUND: Attempts to eradicate alien arthropods often require pesticide applications. An effort to remove an alien beetle from Central Park in New York City, USA, resulted in widespread treatments of trees with the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid. Imidacloprid's systemic activity and mode of entry via roots or trunk injections reduce risk of environmental contamination and limit exposure of non-target organisms to pesticide residues. However, unexpected outbreaks of a formerly innocuous herbivore, Tetranychus schoenei (Acari: Tetranychidae), followed imidacloprid applications to elms in Central Park. This undesirable outcome necessitated an assessment of imidacloprid's impact on communities of arthropods, its effects on predators, and enhancement of the performance of T. schoenei. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: By sampling arthropods in elm canopies over three years in two locations, we document changes in the structure of communities following applications of imidacloprid. Differences in community structure were mostly attributable to increases in the abundance of T. schoenei on elms treated with imidacloprid. In laboratory experiments, predators of T. schoenei were poisoned through ingestion of prey exposed to imidacloprid. Imidacloprid's proclivity to elevate fecundity of T. schoenei also contributed to their elevated densities on treated elms. CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: This is the first study to report the effects of pesticide applications on the arthropod communities in urban landscapes and demonstrate that imidacloprid increases spider mite fecundity through a plant-mediated mechanism. Laboratory experiments provide evidence that imidacloprid debilitates insect predators of spider mites suggesting that relaxation of top-down regulation combined with enhanced reproduction promoted a non-target herbivore to pest status. With global commerce accelerating the incidence of arthropod invasions, prophylactic applications of pesticides play a major role in eradication attempts. Widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides, however, can disrupt ecosystems tipping the ecological balance in favor of herbivores and creating pest outbreaks.