Habitat heterogeneity is thought to affect top-down control of herbivorous insects and contribute to population stability by providing a more attractive microhabitat for natural enemies, potentially leading to reduced population fluctuations. Identifying the parameters that contribute to habitat heterogeneity promoting top-down control of herbivorous insects by natural enemies could facilitate appropriate management decisions, resulting in a decreased risk of pest insect outbreaks because of a higher level of predation. In our study, we measured the top-down pressure exerted by small mammals on the cocoons of a notorious pest insect in pine forests, the European pine sawfly (Neodiprion sertifer), which is known to be regulated by small mammal predation. The forest stands used differed in heterogeneity measured in terms of differences in tree diversity and density, understory vegetation height, presence/absence, and density of dead wood. We found higher predation in more dense spots within forest stands. Further, the effect of dead wood on sawfly cocoon predation depended on the pine proportion in forest stands. The addition of dead wood in a manipulation experiment had a slight positive effect on cocoon predation, while dead wood removal caused a clear decrease in predation rate, and the decrease was more pronounced when the proportion of pine increased. Our results show that habitat heterogeneity affects predation by generalist predators on herbivorous insects. This knowledge could be applied to reduce the risk of insect outbreaks by applying management methods that increase heterogeneity in perennial systems such as forests and orchards, thus decreasing the levels of insect damage.
Keywords: biological control; forestry; habitat diversity; natural enemy; outbreaks; population dynamics.