Climatic signals in the life histories of insects: the distribution and abundance of heather psyllids (Strophingia spp.) in the UK

ID Hodkinson*, J Bird, JE Miles, JS Bale, JJ Lennon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Citations (Scopus)


1. The population density and age structure of two species of heather psyllid Strophingia ericae and Strophingia cinereae, feeding on Calluna vulgaris and Erica cinerea, respectively, were sampled using standardized methods at locations throughout Britain. Locations were chosen to represent the full latitudinal and altitudinal range of the host plants.

2. The paper explains how spatial variation in thermal environment, insect life-history characteristics and physiology, and plant distribution, interact to provide the mechanisms that determine the range and abundance of Strophingia spp.

3. Strophingia ericae and S. cinereae, despite the similarity in the spatial distribution patterns of their host plants within Britain, display strongly contrasting geographical ranges and corresponding life-history strategies. Strophingia ericae is found on its host plant throughout Britain but S. cinereae is restricted to low elevation sites south of the Mersey-Humber line and occupies only part of the latitudinal and altitudinal range of its host plant. There is no evidence to suggest that S. ericae has reached its potential altitudinal or latitudinal limit in the UK, even though its host plant appears to reach its altitudinal limit.

4. There was little difference in the ability of the two Strophingia spp. to survive shortterm exposure to temperatures as low as - 15 degrees C and low winter temperatures probably do not limit distribution in S. cinereae.

5. Population density of S. ericae was not related to altitude but showed a weak correlation with latitude. The spread of larval instars present at a site, measured as an index of instar homogeneity, was significantly correlated with a range of temperature related variables, of which May mean temperature and length of growing season above 3 degrees C (calculated using the Lennon and Turner climatic model) were the most significant. Factor analysis did not improve the level of correlation significantly above those obtained for single climatic variables. The data confirmed that S. ericae has a I year life cycle at the lowest elevations and a 2 year life cycle at the higher elevations. However, there was no evidence, as previously suggested, for an abrupt change from a one to a 2 year life cycle in S. ericae with increasing altitudes or latitudes.

6. By contrast with S. ericae, S. cinereae had an obligatory 1 year life cycle, its population decreased with altitude and the index of instar homogeneity showed little correlation with single temperature variables. Moreover, it occupied only part of the range of its host plant and its spatial distribution in the UK could be predicted with 96% accuracy using selected variables in discriminant analysis.

7. The life histories of the congeneric heather psyllids reflect adaptations that allow them to exploit host plants with different distributions in climatic and thereby geographical space. Strophingia ericae has the flexible life history that enables it to exploit C. vulgaris throughout its European boreal temperate range. Strophingia cinereae has a less flexible life history and is adapted for living on an oceanic temperate host. While the geographic ranges of the two Strophingia spp. overlap within the UK, the psyllids appear to respond differently to variation in their thermal environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-95
Number of pages13
JournalFunctional Ecology
Publication statusPublished - Jun 1999


  • Ericaceae
  • geographical range
  • life cycle
  • Psylloidea
  • temperature

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