1 Temporary habitats are characterized by the appearance and disappearance of patches in which resources are available for a limited period only. Organisms living in those environments usually exhibit adaptive traits, such as a high ability to find and exploit new patches. Among them are phytophagous insects, such as crop pests living in agroecosystems. Understanding how phytophagous insects invade a new patch is of great agricultural importance.
2 Here, we investigated how aphids colonize a wheat field by studying the spatial and temporal dynamics of their populations at large (field) and fine (group of host plants) scales.
3 The sampling design consisted of counting and locating aphid colonies within 30 0.25 m2 squares randomly spaced in a 1.5-ha winter wheat field over 2 months. All colonies were precisely located within the squares and their composition in terms of morphs was determined.
4 We show that: (i) immigration of winged aphids was a major factor driving the aphid population dynamics during a large part of the season and (ii) within the field, populations established late in the growing season. Aggregated, populations of aphids became progressively homogeneously distributed at the field scale. At the scale of a 0.25 m2 square, infested plants were clustered in randomly distributed small patches, and aphid colonies experienced high extinction rates, suggesting failure in population establishment.
5 Because immigration may considerably influence both population dynamics and spatial distribution, our study suggests that future predictive models should give a greater weight to spring immigrants.