Although the ants often mutualize with seed dispersals for plants, they rarely participate in pollination. More often than not, when it comes to flowers, the ants negatively affect crops that act as nectar thieves and scare away with their aggressive presence of legitimate pollinators. Therefore, it is useful for nectar plants to develop mechanisms that prevent or discourage the visitation of open flowers by ants. Although some cases of adaptations have been documented, it is not a well-investigated phenomenon.
Lead author Kazuya Takeda and colleagues investigated a case of pendant flowers that appeared to use a slippery coating on their perianths to prevent ants from reaching a nectar reward meant for the plants’ flying pollinators in a new article published in Annals of Botany. Although the nectar is exposed and easily accessible, the researchers discovered that ants rarely visit the flowers of Codonopsis lanceolata.
The authors conducted behavioural experiments on C. lanceolata and another slippery flower, Fritillaria koidzumiana, to see if the slipperiness prevents ant entry and how the presence of ants in the corolla affects pollination. They also used scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to investigate the slipperiness of the petal surfaces.
The SEM findings revealed that the flowers’ slick surfaces were coated with wax crystals. When these were wiped with hexane, a non-polar solvent, the surfaces became less slippery, resulting in a significant reduction in the number of ants that fell off while attempting to enter. Furthermore, ants entered the flowers more frequently when artificial, non-slippery ‘bridges’ were added.
The researchers tied individual live ants within the corolla in testing their effect on pollinators and they observed the behaviour of bees and hornets visited as well as the rate of pollination of anti-baited and anti-free flowers. Whilst the ants shortened pollinator visits, the fruits or seeds between the two groups did not differ significantly.
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