New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2006) 30(2): 279- 284

Preliminary evidence suggests that beech scale insect honeydew has a negative effect on terrestrial litter decomposition rates in Nothofagus forests of New Zealand

Short Communication
Carl W. Wardhaugh  
Raphael K. Didham *
  1. School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

Honeydew production by New Zealand beech scale insects (Ultracoelostoma spp., Hemiptera: Margarodidae) is widely considered to have a positive influence on native animal abundance and ecosystem functioning. As a first assessment of whether there is a positive relationship between honeydew throughfall and litter decomposition rates, we placed experimental litter bags in each of 10 high and 10 low honeydew plots in mixed southern beech (Nothofagus) forest at each of two sites, Lakehead and Rotoiti, in the Nelson Lakes National Park. High and low honeydew plots were selected using sooty mould biomass on the forest floor as a surrogate for honeydew throughfall, as sooty mould biomass was shown to be strongly correlated (r = 0.906) with scale insect population size at the Rotoiti site. Contrary to our expectation, terrestrial litter decomposition was significantly lower in high honeydew plots than in low honeydew plots, at both Lakehead and Rotoiti. The presence of introduced wasps (Vespula spp., Hymenoptera: Vespidae) at the Lakehead site did not appear to have any significant effect on litter decomposition rates, despite the fact that wasps are thought to intercept much of the honeydew produced in this forest. Variance in litter decomposition rates between high and low honeydew treatments was predominantly determined by a direct relationship between sooty mould biomass and litter decomposition rate at the scale of individual litter bags. However, the mechanistic explanation for the observed relationship is unclear. Future studies should be directed towards quantifying the functional relationship between honeydew throughfall and growth rates of sooty mould, and their subsequent effects on abiotic conditions, microarthropod community dynamics and microbial activity rates in litter.