Elucidating the factors determining the occurrence of florivorous organisms is an essential step for comprehending arthropod–plant interactions, especially when considering florivores that use flowers/inflorescences as microhabitats. In this study, we characterize the interaction between florivorous thrips (Thysanoptera) and Palicourea rigida (Rubiaceae), a distylous hummingbird-pollinated shrub. We investigated the relative role of different factors in determining thrips occurrence in the flower and inflorescence microhabitats. Furthermore, we experimentally examined the protective role of corolla influencing thrips exploration of floral buds. Frankliniella musaeperda (Thripidae) was the only species recorded on P. rigida, feeding on floral tissue, pollen and nectar. Thrips occurrence was not related to distyly, but rather to floral stage. Open flowers presented the highest abundance of thrips, followed by senescent flowers and then buds. The experimental opening of buds translated in increased thrips occurrence, indicating that F. musaeperda manage to explore the microhabitat offered by the floral chamber, as long as there is an opening in the corolla. In inflorescences, thrips abundance was negatively related to the number of ants visiting extrafloral nectaries. We found that the marked difference between floral morphs of distylous plants is not necessarily reflected in the abundance of florivores. Thrips seek for floral cavities, preferentially those with fresh tissue, which may confer nutrient-rich food and protection. Buds also provide this; however, the enclosed petals are an effective barrier against F. musaeperda entrance. At inflorescence scale, presence of mutualistic ants in high numbers can drive away these flower-feeding insects. Despite the abundance of thrips in the flowers, there was no evidence of any functional relationship, either of pollination for flowers or of breeding for insects. We demonstrate here that in the flower/inflorescence microhabitat, structural and biotic factors play a key role in the exploitation and occupation by insect florivores.
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We are grateful to Flávio Camarota for ant species identification. We also thank three anonymous referees for providing comments that improved the manuscript. PKM receives founding from the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP Proc. 2015/21457-4). Ant and spider specimens were deposited in the Laboratório de Ecologia e Comportamento de Abelhas, Universidade Federal de Uberlândia, Brazil.
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