Floral nectar: An ecologically dynamic trait

Nectar production in Amianthium muscaetoxicum.

How do traits that are both an expression of the environment and a response to the environment evolve?

Nectar is an ultimate integration of a plant’s biology and its ecology. When I measure nectar from a flower, am I sampling an individual plant’s genetically-encoded photosynthetic efficiency, the nutritional quality of its local environment, or the outcome of a recent visit from a nectar-feeding animal? The simple answer is all of the above, all at once. I can isolate these components experimentally by excluding animal foragers, manipulating water and nutrient availability, or identifying genes that regulate a plant’s nectar production. But can nature do that, or is it all a wash?

I investigate these questions using the toxic perennial wildflower, Amianthium muscaetoxicum (common names Fly Poison, Staggergrass), and its community of mainly beetle foragers. Amianthium muscaetoxicum produces large droplets of nectar that rest on the petals of its many tiny white flowers. Large, fuzzy beetles, including Strangalepta abbreviata (Cerambycidae) and Trichiotinus affinis (Scarabaidae), inadvertently pollinate flowers as they forage for nectar and pollen from the plants. Other tinier beetles, including Anaspis rufa (Scraptiidae), rob flowers of their nectar but do not pollinate. This community of mutualists and cheaters flourishes in the forest understory of Mountain Lake Biological Station.

Individual Variation

Do individuals consistently vary from one another in their nectar production?

Forager Interactions

How does nectar production affect interactions with pollinating foragers?

Mosaic Selection

How does selection on nectar production dynamics change across communities?