1. Ecological theory predicts that vector preference for certain host species or discrimination between infected versus uninfected hosts impacts disease incidence. However, little information exists on the extent to which vector within-host feeding preference mediates transmission. This may be particularly important for plant pathogens, such as sharpshooter transmission of the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, which are distributed irregularly throughout hosts.
2. We documented the within-host distribution of two vector species that differ in transmission efficiency, the leafhoppers Draeculacephala minerva and Graphocephala atropunctata, and which are free to move throughout entirely caged alfalfa plants. The more efficient vector D. minerva fed preferentially at the base of the plant near the soil surface, whereas the less efficient G. atropunctata preferred overwhelming the top of the plant.
3. Next we documented X. fastidiosa heterogeneity in mechanically inoculated plants. Infection rates were up to 50% higher and mean bacterial population densities were 100-fold higher near the plant base than at the top or in the taproot.
4. Finally, we estimated transmission efficiency of the two leafhoppers when they were confined at either the base or top of inoculated alfalfa plants. Both vectors were inefficient when confined at the top of infected plants and were 20–60% more efficient when confined at the plant base.
5. These results show that vector transmission efficiency is determined by the interaction between leafhopper within-plant feeding behaviour and pathogen within-plant distribution. Fine-scale vector and pathogen overlap is likely to be a requirement generally for efficient transmission of vector-borne pathogens.