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Ants and bees are fighting a turf war. Using elegantly constructed artificial flowers baited with plenty of sugary water, recent graduate Adam Cembrowski teamed up with University of Toronto’s Megan Fredrickson and James Thompson to show that bees make fewer visits to flowers already inhabited by ants. What’s more, the bees avoid flowers even when only the scent of an ant lingers on the flower.
Many species of ant live intimately with plants; plants offer food or nesting space to ants, and ants ward off plant-eating insects. But Cembromski and his collaborators wondered if these mutualisms are as harmonious as they seem. By tracking the movement of artificial pollen from flowers with and without ants or their scent, they provide some of the first insight into the mechanism by which ants reduce bee pollination and thereby plant reproduction rates. The details of this trade-off between the benefits gained by the plant from ant protection and the potential for reduced pollination by bees when ants are present hasn’t before been investigated and is soon to be published in American Naturalist.
“We can no longer ignore that [factors] other than just the pollinator can have an impact on [plant] reproduction,” says Cembrowski. He hopes that his findings will spur future researchers to further disentangling the interactions between the protectors and pollinators of plants.