Plant population biology considers the dynamics of plant modules within stands. However, stands themselves may have considerable regional turnover in space and time. These changes in the number, distribution and size of plant stands generate a dynamic spatial pattern with important implications for the spatial and temporal dynamics of phytophagous insects using these plants as a host. During five successive years we studied the regional distribution and patch dynamics of the creeping thistle Cirsium arvense and the distribution of associated populations of the herbivore Urophora cardui (Diptera: Tephritidae), a specialist stem gall former. The study conducted was in a 15 km2 heterogeneous, agricultural area in northeastern Bavaria.
The distribution of the number of plants per patch was skewed with many more small C. arvense patches than large ones. During the five years of study, there was a 50% increase in the number of C. arvense patches, and a decrease in the mean number of plants per patch (= patch size) to less than half the patch size of the first year. Whilst patch size was randomly distributed in space, patch density showed a consistent, non-random spatial pattern. Patch density was spatially autocorrelated, with areas of high or low patch density having a characteristic dimension of ca. 1 km. Patch size was predictable in time and appeared to be regulated by size dependent processes, with the extinction probability of a patch being negatively correlated with its size. Correlated with the decline of C. arvense patch size during the study, the occupancy and total numbers of the herbivore U. cardui had a marked decrease, suggesting that the regional distribution of the stem gall former is not only influenced by patch number but more importantly by the mean patch size. With decreasing patch sizes, U. cardui was faced with an increasingly dynamic landscape due to higher extinction rates of small patches, although the mean distance between host plant patches decreased.