1. Mutualisms are important drivers of co-evolution and speciation. However, they typically imply costs for one or both partners. Each partner consequently tries to maximise benefits and minimise costs. Mutualisms can therefore develop towards commensalism or parasitism if one partner fails to provide sufficient benefits. This is particularly likely in diffuse interactions, where multiple species can associate with each other. If costs and benefits of a species vary with the identity of the partner species, this may result in a geographical mosaic of co-evolution.
2. In the present study, inter-specific interactions in two parabiotic associations of ants were studied (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). One Crematogaster species was associated with one of two closely related Camponotus species. We assessed cost and benefits by studying behavioural interactions, foraging behaviour, and nest defence in the associations.
3. While parabioses had been shown to be mutualistic, evidence was found for exploitation and aggressive competition between species. In spite of apparent costs of being exploited, we found no benefits for one partner (Crematogaster). The magnitude of potential costs to Crematogaster varied between the two Camponotus species.
4. We conclude that the cost/benefit ratio for Crematogaster varies between the two Camponotus partners, and between environmental conditions. Parabiosis can thus fluctuate between mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism, with Crematogaster being the species that may have higher costs than benefits.
5. We suggest that geneflow in the Crematogaster population hinders local adaptation to the resulting mosaic of locally varying selection pressures. This study demonstrates how diffuse interactions and environmental variation can result in a complex of local selection pressures.