Reproductive escape: annual plant responds to butterfly eggs by accelerating seed production


Correspondence author. E-mail:


  1. Plants respond to insect herbivores with changes in physical and chemical traits, both locally and systemically, in leaves and flowers. Such phenotypic changes may influence the behaviour of every community member that interacts with the plant. Here, we address effects of plant responses to eggs and subsequent herbivory by caterpillars on plant-mediated interactions with pollinators and consequences for plant fitness.
  2. Using a common garden set-up, we have investigated responses of Brassica nigra plants to herbivore exposure from egg deposition onwards throughout larval development. We quantified effects of infestation by the specialist Pieris brassicae on: 1. behaviour of pollinators; 2. volatile emission and 3. timing and number of seeds produced.
  3. Egg deposition and folivory did not influence visitation by pollinators to plots of infested or control plants. Effects of herbivore infestation on both pollinator visitation and volatile emission were observed only at a later stage, when caterpillars were feeding on the flowers.
  4. Remarkably, before eggs had hatched, infested plants accelerated seed production. The caterpillars that developed from the eggs fed on flowers but not on seeds and thus seed production prior to herbivory on flowers safeguarded reproductive output.
  5. The results of this study show that early plant investments in reproduction can successfully prevent consumption of expensive reproductive tissues. By accelerating seed production, plants prevented consumption of flowers and effectively defended themselves against the herbivores.