Continental-scale suppression of an invasive pest by a host-specific parasitoid underlines both environmental and economic benefits of arthropod biological control
Biological control, a globally-important ecosystem service, can provide long-term and broad-scale suppression of invasive pests, weeds and pathogens in natural, urban and agricultural environments. Following (few) historic cases that led to sizeable environmental up-sets, the discipline of arthropod biological control has—over the past decades—evolved and matured. Now, by deliberately taking into account the ecological risks associated with the planned introduction of insect natural enemies, immense environmental and societal benefits can be gained. In this study, we document and analyze a successful case of biological control against the cassava mealybug, Phenacoccus manihoti (Hemiptera: Pseudococcidae) which invaded Southeast Asia in 2008, where it caused substantial crop losses and triggered two- to three-fold surges in agricultural commodity prices. In 2009, the host-specific parasitoid Anagyrus lopezi (Hymenoptera: Encyrtidae) was released in Thailand and subsequently introduced into neighboring Asian countries. Drawing upon continental-scale insect surveys, multi-year population studies and (field-level) experimental assays, we show how A. lopezi attained intermediate to high parasitism rates across diverse agro-ecological contexts. Driving mealybug populations below non-damaging levels over a broad geographical area, A. lopezi allowed yield recoveries up to 10.0 t/ha and provided biological control services worth several hundred dollars per ha (at local farm-gate prices) in Asia’s four-million ha cassava crop. Our work provides lessons to invasion science and crop protection worldwide. Furthermore, it accentuates the importance of scientifically-guided biological control for insect pest management, and highlights its potentially large socio-economic benefits to agricultural sustainability in the face of a debilitating invasive pest. In times of unrelenting insect invasions, surging pesticide use and accelerating biodiversity loss across the globe, this study demonstrates how biological control—as a pure public good endeavor—constitutes a powerful, cost-effective and environmentally-responsible solution for invasive species mitigation.