Grassland fertilisation drives non-random plant loss resulting in areas dominated by perennial grass species. How these changes cascade through linked trophic levels, however, is not well understood. We studied how grassland fertilisation propagates change through the plant assemblage into the plant-flower visitor, plant-leaf miner and leaf miner-parasitoid networks using a year’s data collection from a long-term grassland fertiliser application experiment. Our experiment had three fertiliser treatments each applied to replicate plots 15 m2 in size: mineral fertiliser, farmyard manure, and mineral fertiliser and farmyard manure combined, along with a control of no fertiliser. The combined treatment had the most significant impact, and both plant species richness and floral abundance decreased with the addition of fertiliser. While insect species richness was unaffected by fertiliser treatment, fertilised plots had a significantly higher abundance of leaf miners and parasitoids and a significantly lower abundance of bumblebees. The plant-flower visitor and plant-herbivore networks showed higher values of vulnerability and lower modularity with fertiliser addition, while leaf miner-parasitoid networks showed a rise in generality. The different groups of insects were impacted by fertilisers to varying degrees: while the effect on abundance was the highest for leaf miners, the vulnerability and modularity of flower visitor networks was the most affected. The impact on the abundance of leaf miners was positive and three times higher than the impact on parasitoids, and the impact on bumblebee abundance was negative and double the magnitude of impact on flower abundance. Overall our results show that while insect species richness was unaffected by fertilisers, network structure changed significantly as the replacement of forbs by grasses resulted in changes in relative abundance across trophic levels, with the direction of change depending on the type of network. By studying multiple networks simultaneously, we were able to rank the relative impact of habitat change on the different groups of species within the community. This provided a more holistic picture of the impact of agricultural intensification and provides useful information when deciding on priorities for mitigation.
Insect data were hand collected or reared from host.
Insect identification was done or confirmed by taxonomists (see methods in the paper).
In flower count, we used information on the number of flowers per flower unit (capitulum or umbel) by:
Baldock KCR et al. 2015 Where is the UK’s pollinator biodiversity? The importance of urban areas for flower-visiting insects. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20142849. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.2849