Category Archives: Ecology

Instead of toxic chemicals, use helping plants to get rid of crop pests

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Finding efficient ways to deal with agricultural pests in crops is a challenging work. Currently, as we all known, the main strategy to control such pests is the use of chemical pesticides. However, this approach only serves the interests of those seeking profit over well-being, as we all know that such pesticides increase the risk of several health issues in those consuming the crops. More than that, chemical pesticides not only kill the targeted pest but many other life forms, causing a devastating effect on ecosystems.

The cross-striped cabbageworm (Evergesis rimosalis) is a common pest in plants of the genus Brassica (kale, cabbage, mustard) in the eastern United States. Photo by iNaturalist user margaridamaria.*

Fortunately, there has been an increasing interest in finding alternative, healthier ways to deal with the problem. One way is the production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that are naturally resistant to pests. There are, however, two main problems with this approach. The first one is that the population in general has an irrational fear of GMOs, apparently believing that they can be more harmful than the poisonous chemical pesticides, which is completely absurd. The second problem with GMOs is that the technology to create them is dominated by the same companies that produce most pesticides and, as all big companies, only seek profit and do not give a damn about the people and the environment.

A third strategy is the use of natural enemies of the pests to control them in organic farms. Although many natural enemies are great doing their job, they may also cause negative impacts by interfering with the surrounding ecosystems. Many crop pests are not native from the area where they are pests, i.e., they are invasive species and, in order to control them efficiently, a predator from its native area must be introduced as well, and this predator may end up becoming a threat to other species that it elects as food.

Coleomegilla maculata is a common predatory lady beetle in the eastern United States. They are great to control agricultural pests locally but should not be deliberately introduced elsewhere. Photo by Riley Walsh.*

Fortunately, some nice strategies have been recently developed. One of them includes the use of additional plants in the fields that change the way that pests behave without posing a threat to surrounding areas. These additional plants consists of two types: trap crops and insectary plants.

The common buckwheat Fagopyrum esculentum has been used as an insectary plant. Photo by iNaturalist user jimkarlstrom.*

A trap crop, as the name suggests, is an additional crop that is not intended to be commercially exploited, but serves as a trap for the pests. Instead of attacking the main crop (called the ‘cash crop’), the pests are attracted to the trap crop, reducing their density in the cash crop. This system is more efficient if the trap crop is similar to the cash crop, such as another plant of the same genus, or another variety of the same species, because it must be as attractive to the pest as the cash crop, or perhaps even more attractive.

Insectary plants, on the other hand, are intended to attract other insects to the plantation, especially predatory insects that prey on the agricultural pest. Insectary plants should produce flowers in abundance, thus attracting many insect species, which will increase the interest of predators in the area. However, when used alone, insectary plants will only provide predators to control the pest in crop plants that are near the insectary plants and, as they are usually planted in an area surrounding the plantation, they would not protect the plants that are near the center of the plantation.

In a recent study, Shrestha et al. (see references) decided to combine trap crops and insectary plants together with the cash crops in a strategy that they called a ‘botanical triad’. The cash crap was organic cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata) planted in the eastern United States; the trap crops were three other crops of the genus Brassica: mighty mustard (Brassica juncea), kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephala) and collard (Brassica oleracea var. italica); and the insectary plants were buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) and sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima).

Kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephala). Photo by David Adreas Tønnessen.*

As a result, the number of herbivores (i.e., crop pests) was larger in the trap crops than in the cash crop. The trap crops were, therefore, more attractive than the cash crops for the pests. The presence of insectary plants increased the number of predatory and parasitoid insects, such as lady beetles and parasitoid wasps, in the trap crops when compared to treatments without insectary plants. The number of parasitized pests also increased in the presence of insectary plants.

Field layout of the study by Shrestha et al. (2019).**

In general, the “team work” of trap crops and insectary plants greatly reduced the influence of agricultural pests on the cash crops. The trap crops attracted the pests to an area close to the insectary plants, allowing the predators to reach them.

Efficient ways to raise crops organically are possible. We just have to focus on a healthy ecosystem and not on money. If we work together, we can defeat the “Big 6” corporations that dominate the food production in the world. They are the real pests.

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Shrestha B, Finke DL, Piñero JC (2019) The ‘Botanical Triad’: The Presence of Insectary Plants Enhances Natural Enemy Abundance on Trap Crop Plants in an Organic Cabbage Agro-Ecosystem. Insects 10(6): 181. doi: 10.3390/insects10060181

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Friday Fellow: Chinese Banyan Wasp

by Piter Kehoma Boll

During the past three weeks, I presented a fig tree, the Chinese Banyan, a thrips that parasitizes it, the Cuban Laurel Thrips, and a mite that parasitizes the thrips, the Cuban-Laurel-Thrips Mite. However, I haven’t wrote yet about one of the most interesting creatures that interacts with a fig tree: its pollinator.

In the case of the Chinese Banyan, its pollinator is the fig wasp Eupristina verticillata, which I named the Chinese Banyan Wasp. As all fig wasps, this species is very small and completely adapted to live with figs. They cannot survive without the exact fig species with which they interact and the fig species cannot reproduce without that exact wasp. How does this works?

Let’s start our story with an adult female Chinese banyan wasp. The females are black and very small, measuring around 1 to 1.2 mm in length only. This female is flying around looking for a young fig which will serve as her nest and her grave.

This is what a female Chinese Banyan wasp loooks like. Photo by Forest & Kim Starr.*

A fig, in case you don’t know, is not a real fruit in the botanical sense. It is actually a special kind of inflorescence called a syconium that is basically a flower-filled sack. The inner walls of a fig have many tiny male and female flowers and the only way to get to them is through a tiny hole at the fig’s appex. And this hole is only open during the initial stages of the fig’s development.

Chinese Banyan figs in their early stage. You can see the hole marked by a darker “areola” around them. That is the place through which a female fig wasp enters the fig. Credits to Wikimedia user Vinayaraj.**

When the female Chinese Banyan fig wasps is flying around, she is looking for a fig that is at this exactly stage of development. Once she finds one, she crawls inside the fig through that tiny hole. She usually loses her wings while doing that because the passage is too narrow. She evens needs to use her especially adapted mandible to help her go through. Once inside the fig, she looks for the female flowers, which are located at the base of the fig, away from the entrance. The male flowers, located right at the entrance, are not mature yet. However, the female wasps arrived with pollen that she gathered elsewhere (you will learn about that soon). When she reaches the female flowers, she introduces her ovopositor (the long structure at the end of her abdomen that is used to lay eggs) inside the female flower and lays one egg inside the flower’s ovary. Her ovopositor needs to have the exact size to reach the ovary to lay the egg. If it is too short, she is unable to complete her task. And while she is moving from flower to flower to lay eggs, she ends up pollinating them. After she has finished, she dies still inside the fig.

The ovaries that received an egg start to grow into a gall (a “plant tumor”) by influence of the insect and serve as food and shelter for the larvae that hatch from the eggs. A larva grows, pupates and turns into an adult inside a single gall. When the wasps have finally reached their adult stage, they leave the gall in which they were born. This happens when the fig reached its mature stage.

Males are the first ones to emerge. They are even smaller than the females and have a yellow to light-brown color. They gnaw their way through the gall and, once outside it (but still inside the fig) they start to look desperately for female wasps to inseminate. They do that by tearing other galls apart and, when a female is found trapped inside, they inseminate her. After that, the males dig a hole through the fig to the outside and die soon after, never experienced the external world.

A male Chinese Banyan wasp (right) compared to a female. Photo by Forest & Kim Starr.*

Female wasps then leave their galls and move towards the hole opened by the male. While doing that, they move over the now mature male flowers and become covered in polen. After leaving the fig, they search for another fig that is in its early stage of development, restarting the cycle.

When a female leaves a mature fruit, she needs to find an immature one soon after that because she will die in a couple of days. In other words, the only way for this to work is if there are figs in the right stage all year around, and that is what happens. Differently from most plant species, which produce flowers in a specific time of the year, fig trees are always flowering. Well, not exactly. One individual fig tree produces figs only in a specific period of the year. All the figs of that tree ripen at the same time, i.e., a fig tree has an intra-individual synchrony of flower maturation. However, other trees of the same species have different moments to produce flowers, i.e., there is an inter-individual asynchrony of flower maturation. This assures that a wasp will always find a fig at the suitable maturation stage when there are enough fig trees around and also assures that a fig tree will not be fertilized by its own pollen.

As I mentioned when I presented the Chinese Banyan, this tree can only produce viable figs when the wasp is present, so that populations introduced outside of their native range will only reproduce if the waps is introduced as well. However, the wasp will be unable to survive if there are not enough fig trees to provide it with figs all year round. It is a delicate relationship between a tiny, fragile and short-lived insect and a huge, resistant and long-lived tree. And they need each other to survive.

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Cook J, Rasplus J-Y (2003) Mutualists with attitude: coevolving fig wasps and figs. TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution 18(5): 241–248.

Kjellberg F, Jousselin E, Hossaert-McKey M, Rasplus J-Y (2005) Biology, Ecology, and Evolution of Fig-pollinating Wasps (Chalcidoidea, Agaonidae). In Raman A, Schaefer CW, Withers TM (Eds.) Biology, ecology and evolution of gall-inducing arthropods. v.2. New Hampshire, Science, p.539-572.

McPherson JR (2005) A Recent Expansion of its Queensland Range by Eupristina verticillata, Waterston (Hymenoptera, Agaonidae, Agaoninae), the Pollinator of Ficus microcarpa l.f. (Moraceae). Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales: 126: 197–201.

Weiblen DG (2002) How to be a fig wasp. Annual Review of Entomology 47: 299–330.

Wiebes JT (1992) Agaonidae (Hymenoptera, Chalcidoidea) and Ficus (Moraceae): fig waps and their figs, VIII (Eupristina s.l.). Proceedings of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen 95(1): 109–125.

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Old Italian trees: a step toward worldwide recognition?

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Some years ago I wrote an article (you can read it here) about the importance of trees, especially old trees, and how their ecological role is different from that of a young tree.


Ancient trees are ecological preciosities and need to be preserved for the sake of their ecosystems. Photo by flickr user loshak.*

In Italy, there are specific laws erected to protect ancient trees, especially if they are unique for their species or have some sort of aesthetic or cultural value. Recently, their importance for the preservation of a variety of lifeforms has also started to be recognized. A recently published article by a group of Italian researchers (see below) compared the noteworthy old trees in Italy recorded in a previous list and a new list. They conclude that the new inventory has considerable improvements, although some issues remain, including the presence of exotic, even invasive, species in the list.

But such initiatives are at least important as a first step that may guide us to a better understanding and management of old trees, which are precious elements, but continue to decline worldwide.

Read the study for free:

Zapponi, L.; Mazza, G.; Farina, A.; Fedrigoli, L.; Mazzocchi, F.; Roversi, P. F.; Peverieri, G. S.; Mason, F. (2017) The role of monumental trees for the preservation of saproxylic biodiversity: re-thinking their management in cultural landscapes. Nature Conservation 19: 231–243.

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Going a long way with your mouth open to new tastes

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Everybody knows that human activities have driven our environment toward an unfortunate situation. The most popular forms of human impact include pollution, deforestation and overexploitation of natural resources, but certainly an important factor in remodeling ecosystems is the invasion of species.

While humans move around the world, they carry many species with them, either intentionally or not, an some of them establish successfully in the new environment, while others do not. But what makes some species become successful invaders while other are unable to do so?

It is clear for some time that having a broad niche, i.e., a broad tolerance in environmental conditions and a broad use of resources is very important to succeed in invading a new habitat. Food niche breadth, i.e., the amount of different food types one can ingest, is among the most important dimensions of the niche influencing the spread of a species.

I myself studied the food niche breadth of six Neotropical land planarians in my master’s thesis (see references below) and it was clear that the species with the broader niche are more likely to become invasive. Actually, the one with the broadest food niche, Obama nungara, is already an invader in Europe, as I already discussed here.


A specimen of Obama nungara from Southern Brazil that I used in my research. Photo by myself, Piter Kehoma Boll.*

But O. nungara has a broad food niche in its native range, which includes southern Brazil, and likely reflected this breadth in Europe. But could a species that has a narrow food niche in its native range broaden it in a new environment?

A recent study by Courant et al. (see references) investigated the diet of the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis, that is an invasive species in many parts of the world. They compared its diet in its native range in South Africa whith that in several populations in other countries (United States, Wales, Chile, Portugal and France).


The African clawed frog Xenopus laevis. Photo by Brian Gratwicke.**

The results indicated that X. laevis has a considerable broad niche in both its native and non-native ranges, but the diet in Portugal showed a greater shift compared to that in other areas, which indicates a great ability to adapt to new situations. In fact, the population from Portugal lives in running water, while in all other places this species prefers still water.

We can conclude that part of the success of the African clawed frog when invading new habitats is linked to its ability to try new tastes, broadening its food niche beyond that from its original populations. The situation in Portugal, including a different environment and a different diet, may also be the result of an increased selective pressure and perhaps the chances are that this population will change into a new species sooner than the others.

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Boll PK & Leal-Zanchet AM (2016). Preference for different prey allows the coexistence of several land planarians in areas of the Atlantic Forest. Zoology 119: 162–168.

Courant J, Vogt S, Marques R, Measey J, Secondi J, Rebelo R, Villiers AD, Ihlow F, Busschere CD, Backeljau T, Rödder D, & Herrel A (2017). Are invasive populations characterized by a broader diet than native populations? PeerJ 5: e3250.

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The warmer the dangerouser, at least if you are a caterpillar

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Scientist all over the world agree that species diversity is higher at the tropics than at polar regions, i.e., the closer you get to the equator, more species you will find. But apart from making food webs more entangled, does it increase the overall number of interactions that species experience? Afterall, despite the increase in species richness, the population size usually decreases. For example, while there are hundreds of different tree species in the Amazon forest, the number of individuals of each species is much lower than the number of individuals of a species in a temperate forest in Europe.

In order to test whether an increase in species richness would also mean an increase in biotic interactions, a group of ecologists all over the world engaged in a worldwide experiment using nothing else but small fake caterpillars made of plasticine. The small models were placed in different areas from the polar regions to the equatorial regions and the number of attacks that they suffered were counted and grouped according to the type of predator, which was usually identifiable based on the marks left on the models.


A fake caterpillar in Tai Po Kau, Hong Kong. Photo by Chung Yun Tak, extracted from ScienceDaily.

The results indicate that there is indeed an increase in predation rates towards the equator, as well as towards the sea level. Areas close to the poles or at high elevations have a smaller number of interactions. But even more interesting was the revelation that this change is really driven by small predators, especially arthropods such as ants. The rate of attacks by birds and mammals was fairly constant across the globe.

Such an evidence on the importance of arthropod predators at the tropics may make us reevaluate our ideas on the evolution of species in such places, as the main concern for small herbivores such as caterpillars in tropical forests may not be birds, but ants. And this means a completely different way to evolve defense strategies.

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Roslin, T., Hardwick, B., Novotny, V., Petry, W., Andrew, N., Asmus, A., Barrio, I., Basset, Y., Boesing, A., Bonebrake, T., Cameron, E., Dáttilo, W., Donoso, D., Drozd, P., Gray, C., Hik, D., Hill, S., Hopkins, T., Huang, S., Koane, B., Laird-Hopkins, B., Laukkanen, L., Lewis, O., Milne, S., Mwesige, I., Nakamura, A., Nell, C., Nichols, E., Prokurat, A., Sam, K., Schmidt, N., Slade, A., Slade, V., Suchanková, A., Teder, T., van Nouhuys, S., Vandvik, V., Weissflog, A., Zhukovich, V., & Slade, E. (2017). Higher predation risk for insect prey at low latitudes and elevations Science, 356 (6339), 742-744 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaj1631

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Obama invades Europe: “Yes, we can!”

ResearchBlogging.orgby Piter Kehoma Boll

This information was known by me and some other people for quite a while, but only recently has caught attention of the general public. Obama is the newest threat in Europe.

No, I’m not talking about the president of the United States. I’m talking about a land flatworm whose name is  Obama nungara.


This is the magnificent Obama nungara. This specimen is from Brazil and looks particulary yellowish due to the strong light of the camera flash. Photo by Piter Kehoma Boll.*

It has been a while since a new invasive land flatworm started to appear in gardens of Europe, especially in Spain and France and eventually elsewhere, such as in the United Kingdom. It was quickly identified as being a Neotropical land planarian and posteriorly as belonging to the genus Obama, whose name has nothing to do with Barack Obama, but is rather a combination of the Tupi words oba (leaf) and ma (animal) as a reference to the worm’s shape.


When you find Obama nungara in your garden, it will look much darker, like this one found in the UK. Photo by

At first it was thought that the planarian belonged to the species Obama marmorata, a species that is native from southern Brazil, but molecular and morphological analyses revealed it to be a new species. Actually, much of what was called Obama marmorata in Brazil was this new species. Thus, it was named nungara, which means “similar” in Tupi, due to its similarity with Obama marmorata.


This is Obama marmorata, the species that O. nungara was originally mistaken for. Photo by Fernando Carbayo.**

Measuring about 5 cm in length, sometimes a little more or a little less, O. nungara is currently known to feed on earthworms, snails, slugs and even other land planarians. Its impact on the European fauna is, however, still unknown, but the British charitable organization Buglife decided to spread an alert and many news websites seem to have loved the flatworm’s name and suddenly a flatworm is becoming famous.

Who said flatworms cannot be under the spotlight? Yes, they can!

See also: The Ladislau’s flatworm, a cousin of Obama nungara.

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Álvarez-Presas, M., Mateos, E., Tudó, À., Jones, H., & Riutort, M. (2014). Diversity of introduced terrestrial flatworms in the Iberian Peninsula: a cautionary tale PeerJ, 2 DOI: 10.7717/peerj.430

Boll, P., & Leal-Zanchet, A. (2016). Preference for different prey allows the coexistence of several land planarians in areas of the Atlantic Forest Zoology, 119 (3), 162-168 DOI: 10.1016/j.zool.2016.04.002

Carbayo, F., Álvarez-Presas, M., Jones, H., & Riutort, M. (2016). The true identity of Obama (Platyhelminthes: Geoplanidae) flatworm spreading across Europe Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 177 (1), 5-28 DOI: 10.1111/zoj.12358

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Friday Fellow: Elegant sunburst lichen

by Piter Kehoma Boll

Bipolar and Alpine in distribution, occurring in both Arctic and Antarctic regions, as well as on the Alps and nearby temperate areas, the elegant sunburst lichen (Xanthoria elegans) is a beautiful and interesting creature. As all lichens, it is formed by a fungus associated with an alga.

An elegant sunburst lichen growing on a rock in the Alps. Photo by flickr user Björn S...*

An elegant sunburst lichen growing on a rock in the Alps. Photo by flickr user Björn S…*

The elegant sunburst lichen grows on rocks and usually has a circular form and a red or orange color. Growing very slowly, at a rate of about 0.5 mm per year, they are useful to estimate the age of a rock face by a technique called lichenometry. By knowing the growth rate of a lichen, one can assume the lichen’s age by its diameter and so determine the minimal time that the rock has ben exposed, as a lichen cannot grow on a rock if it is not there yet, right? This growth rate is not that regular among all populations. Lichens growing closer to the poles usually grow quickly because they seem to have higher metabolic rates to help them survive in the colder climates.

Beside its use to determine the age of a rock surface, the elegant sunburst lichen is a model organism in experiments related to resistance to the extreme environments of outer space. It has showed the ability to survive and recover from exposures to vacuum, UV radiation, cosmic rays and varying temperatures for as long as 18 months!

Maybe when we finally reach a new inhabitable planet, we will find out that the elegant sunburst lichen had arrived centuries before us!

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Murtagh, G. J.; Dyer, P. S.; Furneaux, P. A.; Critteden, P. D. 2002. Molecular and physiological diversity in the bipolar lichen-forming fungus Xanthoria elegans. Mycological Research, 106(11): 1277–1286. DOI: 10.1017/S0953756202006615

Wikipedia. Xanthoria elegans. Available at: < >. Access on June 30, 2016.

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