Abstract Changes in the frequency, duration, and intensity of rainfall events are among the abiotic effects predicted under anthropogenic global warming. Heavy downpours may profoundly affect the development and survival of small organisms such as insects. Here, we examined direct (physically on the insects) and indirect (plant-mediated) effects of simulated downpours on the performance of caterpillars of two lepidopteran herbivores (Plutella xylostella and Pieris brassicae) feeding on black mustard (Brassica nigra) plants. Host plants were exposed to different rainfall regimes both before and while caterpillars were feeding on the plants in an attempt to separate direct and indirect (plant-mediated) effects of rainfall on insect survival and development. In two independent experiments, downpours were simulated as a single long (20 min) or as three short (5 min) daily events. Downpours had a strong negative direct effect on the survival of P. xylostella, but not on that of P. brassicae. Direct effects of downpours consistently increased development time of both herbivore species, whereas effects on body mass depended on herbivore species and downpour frequency. Caterpillar disturbance by rain and recorded microclimatic cooling by 5°C may explain extended immature development. Indirect, plant-mediated effects of downpours on the herbivores were generally small, despite the fact that sugar concentrations were reduced and herbivore induction of secondary metabolites (glucosinolates) was enhanced in plants exposed to rain. Changes in the frequency of precipitation events due to climate change may impact the survival and development of insect herbivores differentially. Broader effects of downpours on insects and other arthropods up the food chain could seriously impair and disrupt trophic interactions, ultimately destabilizing communities.
- climate change
- global warming
- insect herbivores
- plant–insect interactions
- secondary plant metabolites
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