, Volume 91, Issue 3, pp 410-418

Pollination by ants: consequences of the quantitative effects on a mutualistic system

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Summary

We have analysed the importance of worker ants (Proformica longiseta, Formicidae) as pollinators of a mass-flowering woody plant (Hormathophylla spinosa, Cruciferae) in the high-mountain area of the Sierra Nevada (southern Spain). We have quantified the abundance and foraging behavior of P. longiseta in comparison with winged flower visitors. We have also examined, by means of selective exclusion experiments, the role of ants as true pollinators, comparing them with the winged flower visitors. A total of 39 species belonging to 18 families visited the flowers of H. spinosa. All the visitors were winged insects, except P. longiseta, a species which alone made up more than 80% of the total number of insects found on the flowers. All pollinators of H. spinosa had similar foraging patterns, with 98% of total movements made between flowers within the same plant. Ants always made contact with the plant reproductive organs when foraging for nectar, and transferred large numbers of pollen grains. However, pollen exposed to ants for brief periods exhibited reduced percentage of germination. P. longiseta is both the most abundant and spatio-temporally predictable flower visitor of H. spinosa. These characteristics, weighted by their flower visitation rate, make worker ants the pollinator that maintains the strongest mutualistic interaction with H. spinosa. The exclusion experiments show that workers behave as true pollinators, since they contribute to increase the number of viable seeds produced by H. spinosa. The key factor of this interaction is mainly the great density of workers throughout the flowering period. In short, the H. spinosa-P. longiseta mutualistic interaction mainly depends on its high probability of occurrence.