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Public Library of Science

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Spider mites, a cosmopolitan pest of agricultural and landscape plants, thrive under hot and dry conditions, which could become more frequent and extreme due to climate change. Recent work has shown that neonicotinoids, a widely used class of systemic insecticides that have come under scrutiny for non-target effects, can elevate spider mite populations. Both water-stress and neonicotinoids independently alter plant resistance against herbivores. Yet, the interaction between these two factors on spider mites is unclear, particularly for Banks grass mite (Oligonychus pratensis; BGM). We conducted a field study to examine the effects of water-stress (optimal irrigation = 100% estimated evapotranspiration (ET) replacement, water stress = 25% of the water provided to optimally irrigated plants) and neonicotinoid seed treatments (control, clothianidin, thiamethoxam) on resident mite populations in corn (Zea mays, hybrid KSC7112). Our field study was followed by a manipulative field cage study and a parallel greenhouse study, where we tested the effects of water-stress and neonicotinoids on BGM and plant responses. We found that water-stress and clothianidin consistently increased BGM densities, while thiamethoxam-treated plants only had this effect when plants were mature. Water-stress and BGM herbivory had a greater effect on plant defenses than neonicotinoids alone, and the combination of BGM herbivory with the two abiotic factors increased the concentration of total soluble proteins. These results suggest that spider mite outbreaks by combinations of changes in plant defenses and protein concentration are triggered by water-stress and neonicotinoids, but the severity of the infestations varies depending on the insecticide active ingredient.