Bumblebee Rejection of Toxic Pollen Facilitates Pollen Transfer

Xiao-Yue Wang, Ju Tang, Ting Wu, Di Wu, Shuang-Quan Huang
Current Biology: CB 2019 March 30
Many bees are effective pollen collectors; however, pollen grains collected by bees for larval food are lost for plant sexual reproduction. Recognition of these conflicting interests between bees and flowers is essential for understanding of reproduction for both bees and flowers [1-3]. Plant defense compounds in pollen may function to reduce pollen waste by deterring ineffective pollinators [4-6], but this hypothesis remains unexamined. Here, we provide evidence that secondary metabolites in pollen function as chemical defense by deterring some bees from gathering pollen. In two Dipsacus species, a defense compound, dipsacus saponin [7], occurs in pollen but not in nectar. We observed that bumblebees disliked grooming bitter-tasting pollen with a high saponin content. Manipulation of saponin concentrations in nectar and measurements of corbicular pollen showed that the bumblebee species differed in their tolerance to saponin. Those species susceptible to saponin groomed little Dipsacus pollen into their pollen loads, and their ungroomed pollen was observed to be effectively delivered to stigmas. By rewarding bees with edible nectar, but not pollen, plants solve the conflict of pollen partitioning between sexual and reward functions. Ungroomed toxic pollen on the bee body promotes pollen transfer efficiency, facilitating pollination.

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