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A mutualism's indirect costs: the most aggressive plant bodyguards also deter pollinators


  • Joshua H. Ness

J. H. Ness, Dept of Biology, Skidmore College, Satatoga Springs, NY 12866, and Dept of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 84721, USA (


Plant defenses against herbivores may be costly if they exclude mutualists. Here, I test the hypothesis that aggressive ant bodyguards of plants deter pollinators, and explore mechanisms by which Ferocactus wislizeni, an extrafloral nectary bearing cactus, limits conflicts between its pollinators and bodyguards. Flower visitation by ants and pollinating bees differed among plants tended by four different ant species. The ant species most rarely found in flowers showed the strongest aversion to F. wislizeni flower petals in laboratory assays, suggesting that those structures may include an ant-deterrent. Species-specific estimates of mean ant abundance within flowers and aggressiveness towards other arthropods were used to distinguish the relative threat of ant attack in flowers on plants tended by each ant species. Pollinator surveys in 2003 and 2004 demonstrated that bee visitation rates and the duration of flower occupation differed among plants with different ant associates, decreasing as the threat of ant attack increased. Flowers on plants tended by Solenopsis xyloni, the best ant bodyguard, were more dangerous than those on plants tended by three milder species, due to that ants’ greater aggressiveness and abundance within flowers. These flowers were visited by pollinators least frequently and for less time per visit, and produced fruits with significantly lower total seed mass, fewer seeds, and lighter individual seeds, relative to fruits from similarly-sized plants tended by three other ant species. As a result, the best bodyguard may indirectly constrain plant reproduction in some settings. Conflicts between mutualistic guilds may be particularly common in generalized systems, where there is variation in partner quality and in the relative importance of the protection and pollination mutualisms.