1. Numerous studies have revealed (usually positive) relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning (B-EF), but the underpinning drivers are rarely addressed explicitly, hindering the development of a more predictive understanding.
2. We developed a suite of statistical models (where we combined existing models with novel ones) to test for richness and evenness effects on detrital processing in freshwater microcosms. Instead of using consumer species as biodiversity units, we used two size classes within three species (six types). This allowed us to test for diversity effects and also to focus on the role of body size and biomass.
3. Our statistical models tested for (i) whether performance in polyculture was more than the sum of its parts (non-additive effects), (ii) the effects of specific type combinations (assemblage identity effects) and (iii) whether types behaved differently when their absolute or relative abundances were altered (e.g. because type abundance in polyculture was lower compared with monoculture). The latter point meant we did not need additional density treatments.
4. Process rates were independent of richness and evenness and all types performed in an additive fashion. The performance of a type was mainly driven by the consumers’ metabolic requirements (connected to body size). On an assemblage level, biomass explained a large proportion of detrital processing rates.
5. We conclude that B-EF studies would benefit from widening their statistical approaches. Further, they need to consider biomass of species assemblages and whether biomass is comprised of small or large individuals, because even if all species are present in the same biomass, small species (or individuals) will perform better.