When spider mites attack a bean plant, the plant responds by producing odors which attract predatory mites. These predatory mites then exterminate the spider mite population, thus acting as a type of ‘bodyguard’ for the plant. However, if the plant is simultaneously attacked by whiteflies, insects that are related to aphids, the plant becomes less attractive to the predatory mites and therefore more vulnerable to spider mites.
The research team studied the strength of the plant’s “cry for help” through a chemical analysis of the plant odour blend and found that one of the odour components (beta-ocimene) is produced in much lower quantities if the plant is not only attacked by spider mites, but also by whiteflies. The production of the odour decreases because of a lower expression rate of the plant gene that codes for a crucial enzyme in the production chain. When the researchers added ocimene to the odour of plants which were attacked by both species, the attraction of predatory mites was restored.
This recent breakthrough demonstrates that there are also herbivores that can interfere with a plant’s “cry for help”, possibly because the whiteflies attempt to interfere with the plant’s defence system. Spider mites also produce more offspring on a plant under attack by whiteflies. For a spider mite, there are therefore two reasons why a bean plant which is being attacked by whiteflies is better than a bean plant that is not being attacked: more offspring and fewer bodyguards. It is therefore no surprise that the researchers found that the spider mite preferred plants infested with whiteflies above plants without them.