Mechanisms underlying outbreaks of spider mites following applications of imidacloprid

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Imidacloprid is a widely used neonicotinoid insecticide with high efficacy and long residual activity, and it is frequently applied to manage insect pests in urban landscapes. Recent reports of secondary outbreaks of spider mites after imidacloprid applications have prompted research endeavors to explain the driving force of the abrupt increases in abundance of mites. In this research, I documented outbreaks of spider mites in field and greenhouse experiments, and explored the three main mechanisms that have been proposed to explain the outbreaks: elimination of natural enemies, direct stimulation of spider mite fecundity and changes in plant quality, specifically, changes in defense pathways. To this end, I examined if the outbreaks occur in field and greenhouse experiments, and tested if imidacloprid applications disrupted communities of beneficial insects and caused increased reproductive performance of spider mites in two woody ornamental systems, elm trees and boxwood shrubs. Additionally, I used a model organism, tomato plants, to address the hypothesis of altered plant defenses in plants treated with imidacloprid.

I found overwhelming evidence that outbreaks of spider mites occur consistently following applications of imidacloprid in landscape and greenhouse experiments. Moreover, surveys of arthropods on elms and boxwoods showed no evidence of disruption of a key predator of spider mites that could explain the outbreaks. Importantly, I found a plant-mediated effect of imidacloprid on fecundity of spider mites, while there was no evidence that the insecticide applied directly to the mites exerted the same effect on their reproductive performance. Lastly, two genes involved in jasmonic and salicylic acid showed a differential expression in tomatoes treated with imidacloprid, indicating that it affected plants' defense pathways in ways that could render plants more suitable for spider mites. This research demonstrated that changes in quality of plants brought about by imidacloprid seem to be the driving mechanism of secondary outbreaks of spider mites.