1. Although competition for pollination is often invoked as a driver of broad-scale evolutionary and ecological patterns, we still lack a clear understanding of the mechanics of such competition. When flower visitors alternate between two species of flower, heterospecific pollen transfer takes place. The impact of these mixed loads on the female reproductive success of a recipient has received considerable attention, but the concomitant loss of male reproductive success – because of pollens grains being lost to foreign stigmas – has received less. Furthermore, pollen losses are not limited to grains that land on stigmas, but can also include deposition on non-stigmatic surfaces of the intervening flowers, or loss from the animal’s body through passive detachment or active grooming. We collectively term these losses because of competition ‘pollen misplacement’.
2. Here, we quantify pollen transferred by nectar bats between focal flowers (Aphelandra acanthus) with and without intervening visits to one of two competitor species. One competitor (Centropogon nigricans) places its pollen in the same region of bats’ heads as the focal species, while the other (Burmeistera sodiroana) places its pollen farther forward.
3. We found that (i) any intervening visit caused some reduction in the number of pollen grains transferred, (ii) competitor flowers with similar pollen-placement locations caused greater reductions in pollen transfer and (iii) of these competitors, those in male phase (dispensing pollen) caused greater pollen loss than those in female phase (without pollen).
4. This study provides rare empirical support for the detrimental effects of competition for pollination on male fitness via pollen misplacement and is the first to show an added cost imposed by male-phase competitors. Although this competition is especially strong when competitors overlap in pollen placement, diverging in pollen placement will not completely eliminate pollen loss during visits to foreign flowers, simply because pollen sheds or is groomed from pollinator’s bodies at some background rate over time. This suggests that any angiosperms that share pollinators face pervasive selection through male fitness to diverge in floral traits, alleviating competition by attracting different pollinators, altering floral phenology or encouraging floral constancy.