Sunday, 12 May 2013

Just What Makes That Little Old Ant… Change a Flower's Nectar Content?

Apr. 24, 2013 — Ants play a variety of important roles in many ecosystems. As frequent visitors to flowers, they can benefit plants in their role as pollinators when they forage on sugar-rich nectar. However, a new study reveals that this mutualistic relationship may actually have some hidden costs. By transmitting sugar-eating yeasts to the nectar on which they feed, ants may be indirectly altering the nectar-chemistry and thus affecting subsequent pollinator visitations. 

Many species of plants benefit from interacting with ants, and some even secrete special sugary substances to attract ants. Plants produce sugar, in the form of nectar, and in exchange ants provide services such as pollination or protection from herbivores. 

The main components of nectar that attract pollinators include three dominant sugars -- sucrose, fructose, and glucose -- and amino acids (or proteins). The chemical composition of nectar differs among plant species and has been thought to be a conservative trait linked to pollinator type. For example, plants pollinated by hummingbirds tend to have nectar with high amounts of sucrose. In addition, nectar composition is thought to be regulated by the plant. 

"When people think about how flowers are pollinated, they probably think about bees," notes Clara de Vega, a postdoctoral researcher at the Estación Biológica de Doñana, Spain. "But ants also pollinate flowers, and I am interested in the role ants play in pollination since it is still poorly understood." 

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