The effect of nectar guides on pollinator preference: experimental studies with a montane herb
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Rare “albino” morphs of the montane larkspur Delphinium nelsonii differ from common blue-flowered morphs in overall flower color, and in the strength of a contrasting color pattern at the center of the flower that presumably guides pollinators to concealed nectar. Previous studies showed that bumblebees and hummingbirds discriminate against albinos when presented with mixtures of the 2 morphs, and that it takes these pollinators longer to fly between successive flowers on albino than on blue-flowered inflorescences. To explore the link between these observations, we measured pollinator preferences and flower-to-flower flight times (“handling times”) before and after painting flowers in 2 alternative ways that enhanced albino nectar guides. In all of 16 experimental replicates discrimination against albinos was reduced or eliminated after painting, and albino handling times declined toward values for blue-flowered inflorescences. This consistent result indicates that an inferior nectar guide increases the energetic cost of foraging at albinos. Increased cost in turn explains discrimination, under the reasonable assumption that hummingbirds and bumblebees are sensitive to foraging economics.
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