Can alien plants support generalist insect herbivores?
Simple rearing experiments were conducted to address two questions relevant to understanding how generalist lepidopteran herbivores interact with alien plants. Yellow-striped armyworm (Spodoptera ornithogalli), luna moth (Actias luna), bagworm (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) and white-marked tussock moth (Orgyia leucostigma) were reared from egg to 5th instar on excised foliage in the laboratory to determine the degree to which highly polyphagous lepidopteran herbivores are physiologically capable of surviving and developing on the suite of alien plants naturalized in the mid-Atlantic. Actias luna larvae from a single population were similarly reared on a representative of each of the 25 native plant genera recorded as hosts for this species to compare the diet breadth of a local population with that listed over the entire geographic range of the species. With few exceptions, all four generalists either quickly starved or grew at an unsustainably low rate on alien foliage. Actias luna larvae survived for 18 days on only 44% of the native plants recorded as hosts over the entire range of this insect and thrived on only 7%. The data suggest that (1) alien plants are unlikely to produce as much generalist insect biomass as the native plants they replace and (2) Lepidoptera that qualify as generalists when host breadth is considered over their entire geographic range may express a far more specialized diet within local populations. Both of these conclusions support the hypothesis that alien plant invasions may seriously disrupt terrestrial food webs by reducing the insect biomass required by insectivores in higher trophic levels.