Eatough Jones, M. & Paine, T.D. Arthropod-Plant Interactions (2012) 6: 283. doi:10.1007/s11829-011-9181-0
Although it has been speculated that ant visits to extrafloral nectaries of bracken fern may convey a fitness benefit for the plant, this has never been demonstrated with native herbivores and natural insect densities. We tested the hypothesis that ants attracted to extrafloral nectaries of bracken fern provide a mutualistic benefit by protecting fronds from herbivore damage in a field manipulation experiment in southern California. We examined densities of sawfly eggs and larvae on bracken fronds with and without ant exclusion. Because bracken fern in this region is also impacted by nitrogenous air pollution, we included an N addition treatment. We found that sawfly egg abundance was significantly higher for fern plants when ants were excluded, regardless of N treatment. Ants tended to have higher abundance on fertilized plants, but there was no interaction between N additions and ant exclusion. Bracken fern may derive a fitness benefit from attracting ants during the early phases of plant growth, through decreased herbivore oviposition, rather than through the deterrence of feeding larvae.