In the present study we report novel knowledge on the zoophytophagous mirid T. cucurbitaceus, a predatory biocontrol agent that is currently commercialized in Argentina and Uruguay against the South American tomato pinworm T. absoluta, a key pest worldwide, regarding its searching behavior and feeding preference. Previous laboratory studies aimed to determine its predatory capacity reported a daily consumption rate of 30 T. vaporariorum nymphs for females and a lower number for nymphs and male of the predator (8 to 10 nymphs respectively). This mirid actively consumed eggs of a lepidopteran species commonly used for mass rearing, Sitrotroga cereallela Olivier (Lepidoptera: Gelechiidae) (an average of 30 eggs for females and about a half for nymphs and males of T. cucurbitaceus) (López et al. 2012). López et al. (2019) found a consumption of 27 and 72 T. absoluta eggs per day for early, late nymphs and male adults of T. cucurbitaceus meanwhile females can prey up to 147 eggs. Besides, all stages are able to feed on small T. absoluta prey larvae (3 to 5 individuals), rejecting older larvae, and van Lenteren et al. (2021) showed that T. cucurbitaceus has a high T. absoluta reduction capacity and a great potential for practical application in crop production conditions. Other research demonstrated similar predation capacity on T. absoluta and other pests for several mirid species in South America and Europe (Urbaneja et al. 2009; Bueno et al. 2012, 2013; Ingegno et al. 2013, 2019). Besides, T. cucurbitaceus is a dominant species in the hemipteran community inhabiting N Buenos Aires horticultural crops, coincidently with T. vaporariorum and T. absoluta populations (Montiel Cáceres et al. ms in revision) what allows planning augmentation and conservation strategies of this natural enemy to improve pest control. To cope with that, information on its breath diet is necessary to evaluate the efficiency in controlling the target pests and avoid failures in biocontrol programs.
Results of this study revealed that, in general, all individuals of the predatory bug T. cucurbitaceus did not immediately feed in prey patches once released in the arena, and instead, they consumed plant tissue. Similarly, in a study done by Duarte Martínez et al. (2022) they found that mirids M. basicornis and Engytatus varians (Distant) offered T. absoluta and Neoleucinodes elegantalis (Guenée) (Lepidoptera: Crambidae) eggs as prey rested on the tomato leaflet without feeding up to 1800 s. This behavior can be explained since insects generally remain nearly motionless and often hidden while scanning with chemosensory receptors or tactile organs before beginning the search for food, and in that manner avoiding being exposed to potential predators (Bell 1990). It would be interesting to carry out complementary studies related to better knowing T. cucurbitaceus searching behavior activities, as for example, the handling and consumption time, the period elapsed to clean the mouthparts, etc.
When considering the first visit and revisits of simultaneously offer of different prey patches, to both T. cucurbitaceus 4-5th instar nymphs and adults, they did not follow a clear pattern of search, since they chose the three types of prey indistinctly; although there seems to be a tendency for females and males to visit the non-target (whiteflies and E. kuehniella eggs) patches first. Moreover, their first food choice did not affect subsequent choices; however, mirid males revisited the T. absoluta patch more than nymphs and females. A predator's search behavior is often related to the type of food it consumes (Huey and Pianka 1981). It is known that the more generalist predators seek a specific type of prey less frequently compared to the more specialized ones, since the former can feed on a wide range of other prey (Coll and Guershon 2002). In addition, several biotic and abiotic, external and internal, environmental factors can influence the searching behavior of insects. For example, resource quality affects search duration, searching speed, capture rate, and scanning. The quality of the prey may also directly affect the course of search, and in this case the insect's ability is pointed out as a major trait to sample among patches and to use this information to determine if the current patch is still more profitable than some other patch in the habitat (Bell 1990). Another factor is hunger, which may play an important role on the searching behavior exhibited by insects (Heimpel and Hough-Goldstein 1994; Henaut et al. 2002). Generally, an intensive search path is observed after prey capture (Evans 1976; Heimpel and Hough-Goldstein 1994); however, it has been observed for some heteropteran predators that they did not systematically adopt an intensive search path after prey ingestion. For example, Lamine et al. (2005) observed that satiated 5th instar and adult of the predatory bug Deraeocoris lutescens Schilling (Heteroptera: Miridae) adopted an ‘‘intermediate’’ search path, linked to a possible heterogeneous satiety state of individuals in relation to the occurrence of the last meal. Therefore, the choice of the T. cucurbitaceus female could be related to the quality of the resource and the need for high-quality prey to satisfy their reproductive needs, while for males this would not be a necessary requirement, so their choice was indistinct and probably adopted that “intermediate” search path. The lack of a clear first choice for a particular type of prey by T. cucurbitaceus could be related to the generalist habit of this predator and, once they "taste" different food, there seems to be a tendency for them to choose to re-visit the non-target patch, perhaps due to the quality of the resource as seen in the preference analysis.
Both mirid nymphs and adults initially preferred to feed on whiteflies, although females also chose E. kuehniella eggs and nymphs chose T. absoluta eggs, while adults rejected the latter. However, when their preferred prey became depleted, all of them used T. absoluta eggs as an alternative food. In addition to prey quality, its own nutritional requirements can affect predator searching behavior (Biesinger and Haefner 2005). Key nutrients such as amino acids and sterols would seem to be much more reliable as predictors of a predator's capability to serve as a faithful consumer of a target prey (Cohen and Brummett 1997). Cohen and Brummett (1997) shown that the generalist predators Crysoperla carnea (Stephens) (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae) and Geocoris punctipes (Say) (Hemiptera: Geocoridae) could not maintain itself for any protracted period feeding only whiteflies because the relative sparseness of methionine in the prey, and they would be forced to find alternative prey (such as lepidopteran eggs) that are rich in methionine to support its needs. In relation to T. absoluta as prey, Duarte Martínez et al. (2022) found that the mirid E. varians had a strong preference for N. elegantalis when offered together with T. absoluta, while such a preference was not evident for M. basicornis, and this could be associated with their nutritional requirements and the quality of the eggs. Additionally, Mollá et al. (2014) and Sylla et al. (2016) showed that M. pygmaeus had slower nymphal development and lower fertility when fed T. absoluta eggs compared to E. kuehniella eggs, B. tabaci nymphs, and Macrosiphum euphorbiae (Thomas) aphids. Here again, there is evidence that the eggs of T. absoluta probably have a low nutritional quality for mirids, and for this reason these predators need to feed on better quality prey to increase their performance in the crop. However, Jaworski et al. (2013) and Urbaneja et al. (2009) observed that the preference of M. pygmaeus and N. tenuis towards T. absoluta eggs was especially evident in the nymphal stages, probably due to their small size. Similarly, we found that 4-5th instar nymphs preyed more on lepidopteran eggs than on whitefly nymphs. Moreover, Jaworski et al. (2013) showed that the food preference of the mirid M. pigmaeus can change towards a diet of eggs and larvae of T. absoluta when the latter is found in greater proportion than the whitefly; that is, the predator consumes the prey that is in a higher density.
As we mentioned above, T. cucurbitaceus is currently commercialized by a biofactory in Argentina for the control of whiteflies and T. absoluta in greenhouse tomato; therefore, an important aspect that must be considered is that the mass rearing of this bug is maintained with E. kuehniella eggs, which offer them quality food. Other mirids commercialized by biofactories, mainly in Europe, are reared in a similar way. A common practice when these biological control agents are released, for example N. tenuis in Spain, is the enrichment of prey using E. kuehniella eggs in tomato seedlings and crops to favor their subsequent establishment (Calvo et al. 2012). A similar methodology is proposed for the release of T. cucurbitaceus in tomato crops in Argentina (Polack et al. 2017). This type of practice should be evaluated with food preference studies under field conditions in order to determine if this natural enemy is able to change the diet and reduce the biological control of the target pest.
Zoophytophagy is an important aspect to consider when using this predator as a biological control agent (Wheeler 2001; Castañé et al. 2011; Pérez-Hedo et al. 2017). Gillespie and McGregor (2000) proposed three models for explaining zoophytophagy of mirids: 1) species that switch between plant and prey feeding—when decreased prey availability predators are forced to increase phytophagy—, 2) species that feed on plant as a requirement to supplement prey food—plant provides resources, such as water, which are necessary for the digestion process, so the amount of plant feeding increases with increased prey feeding—, and 3) species that feed on plants to gather a critical resource required for predation—i.e. the amount of plant feeding is independent of the amount of prey feeding—. Calvo et al. (2009) found that N. tenuis appears to follow the first model because damage to tomato decreased in response to greater availability of B. tabaci. This behavior differs from that found by Gillespie and McGregor (2000) for Dicyphus hesperus Knight for which damage to tomato increased in response to increased prey availability due to the need to obtain water from the plant for external digestion of prey. In contrast, Lucas and Alomar (2001) registered that Dyciphus tamaninii Wagner seems to damage tomato fruits independently of prey availability. Our behavioral studies revealed that T. cucurbitaceus performs phytophagy on tomato leaves, after being fasted and even in the presence of prey, although no direct leaf damage was observed after feeding. Therefore, this behavior should be studied in greater depth for this species to determine its potential damage to the crop.
Currently, horticultural pests in greenhouse crops can be successfully controlled with IPM programs that include the use of natural enemies, particularly generalist predators (van Lenteren et al. 2018a). The mirid species commercialized in Europe, M. pygmaeus and N. tenuis, have been used successfully in IPM and biological control programs against the tomato moth (Jacobson 2011; Mollá et al. 2011; Urbaneja et al. 2012), and in Brazil there are several species of hemiptera under evaluation as potential biocontrol agents of T. absoluta, such as C. infumatus, E. varians, M. basicornis and Podisus nigrispinus (Dallas) (Bottega et al. 2017; Bueno et al. 2013; Silva et al. 2016; van Lenteren et al. 2018b). This study, and other done by López et al. (2012, 2019) and van Lenteren et al (2021), confirms that T. cucurbitaceus has potential as a biocontrol agent in Argentina, increasing the number of bioproducts available to control horticultural pests. In addition, they highlight the value of native beneficial fauna and the importance of preserving their natural presence in crops, to be used in augmentative releasing or conserving the populations to provide biological control alone or in IPM programs (van Driesche et al. 2008, Desneux et al. 2021).