Impacts of a biocontrol agent on invasive Ageratina adenophora in Southwest China: friend or foe?
Classical biological control of invasive plants depends on the introduction of host-specific natural enemies. Many natural enemies have provided successful control, but the impacts of herbivorous insects on their hosts are highly variable and context dependent. Under some circumstances, overcompensation can even occur, with plant reproduction temporarily increasing rather than decreasing in response to herbivory. The stem-galling fly Procecidochares utilis has been widely introduced to help control Ageratina adenophora, a globally significant weed, but its impact has been inconsistent and in places ineffective. Its galling is known to stimulate production of side branches in plants under laboratory conditions. We examined the abundance and impact of P. utilis at four A. adenophora sites of Southwest China that were invaded at different times and support different densities of the insect. Stems with galls were more likely to be branched and produced more capitula. Furthermore, seed numbers in capitula from galled and un-galled stems were similar, and galling resulted in only slightly reduced seed weights. However, the increase in above-ground vegetative biomass associated with branching resulted in less efficient capitulum production relative to vegetative growth. Clearly Procecidochares utilis is not providing effective biocontrol of Ageratina adenophora in Southwest China so far. In the long term, galled plants may display reduced competitive ability and lower lifetime reproductive success, but the short term increases in seed production it generates suggest it may be favouring its host's range expansion. The fly has been a successful biocontrol agent in dry area of Hawii, so understanding the factors that determine its effectiveness represent a major challenge for the future.