Distasteful Nectar Deters Floral Robbery
Toxic nectar is an ecological paradox [1, 2]. Plants divert substantial resources to produce nectar that attracts pollinators , but toxins in this reward could disrupt the mutualism and reduce plant fitness . Alternatively, such compounds could protect nectar from robbers , provided that they do not significantly alter pollinator visitation to the detriment of plant fitness [1, 5–8]. Indeed, very few studies have investigated the role of plant toxins in nectar for defense against nectar robbers [4, 9, 10]. Here, we compared two Aconitum species (A. napellus and A. lycoctonum) that have flowers specialized for long-tongued bumblebee pollinators (Bombus hortorum) but are occasionally robbed by short-tongued bumblebees (B. terrestris) [6, 11–13]. Pollinator visits to flowers were much more frequent than by robbers, but visits correlated negatively with nectar alkaloid concentration and declined sharply between 200 and 380 ppm. However, alkaloid concentrations of >20 ppm were deterrent to B. terrestris, suggesting that robbers were less tolerant of nectar alkaloids. Nectar of both plant species contained similar concentrations of carbohydrates and toxic alkaloids, but A. lycoctonum was more likely to secrete nectar in each flower and was also visited more frequently by pollinators and robbers. We conclude that alkaloids in Aconitum spp. nectar affect rates of both pollinator visitation and robbery but may have co-evolved with nectar availability to maintain the fitness benefits of specialized plant-pollinator relationships. Chemical defense of nectar is, however, ultimately constrained by pollinator gustatory sensitivity.
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