Why are some plant–nectar robber interactions commensalisms?

Jacob M. Heiling, Trevor A. Ledbetter, Sarah K. Richman, Heather K. Ellison, Judith L. Bronstein, Rebecca E. Irwin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Many plants that bear hidden or recessed floral nectar experience nectar robbing, the removal of nectar by a floral visitor through holes pierced in the corolla. Although robbing can reduce plant reproductive success, many studies fail to find such effects. We outline three mechanistic hypotheses that can explain when interactions between plants and nectar-robbers should be commensal rather than antagonistic: the non-discrimination (pollinators do not avoid robbed flowers), visitor prevalence (robber visitation is rare relative to pollinator visitation), and pollen saturation (stigmas receive sufficient pollen to fertilize all ovules with one or very few pollinator visits) hypotheses. We then explore these mechanisms in the North American subalpine, bumble bee-pollinated and nectar-robbed plant Corydalis caseana (Fumariaceae). We first confirmed that the effects of nectar robbing on female reproductive success were neutral in C. caseana. We then tested the three mechanisms underlying these neutral effects using a combination of observational studies and experiments. We found evidence for all three mechanisms. First, consistent with the non-discrimination hypothesis, pollinators failed to discriminate against experimentally robbed flowers or inflorescences even though naturally robbed flowers offered significantly lower nectar rewards than unrobbed flowers. Second, C. caseana was more commonly visited by pollinators than by nectar robbers, in accordance with the visitor prevalence hypothesis. Third, stigmas of unvisited flowers as well as those visited once by pollinators were saturated with pollen, with all stigmas bearing pollen loads several orders of magnitude higher than the number of ovules per fruit, consistent with the pollen saturation hypothesis. Our investigation of the mechanisms driving the commensal outcome of nectar robbing in this system deepens our understanding of the ecology of nectar robbing and contributes to a more general understanding of the variation in the outcomes of interactions between species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1679-1689
Number of pages11
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2018


  • Corydalis caseana
  • commensalism
  • nectar robbing
  • plant reproduction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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