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Benefits and costs to pollinating, seed-eating insects: the effect of flower size and fruit abortion on larval performance


Plant–pollinator interactions are well-known examples of mutualism, but are not free of antagonism. Antagonistic interactions and defenses or counter-defenses are expected particularly in nursery pollination. In these systems, adult insects, while pollinating, lay their eggs in flowers, and juveniles consume the seeds from one or several fruits, thereby substantially reducing plant fitness. The outcome of such interactions will depend, for the plant, on the balance between pollination versus seed predation and for the larvae on the balance between the food and shelter provided versus the costs imposed by plant defenses, e.g., through abortion of infested fruits. Here, we examine the costs and benefits to the larvae in the nursery-pollination system Silene latifolia/Hadena bicruris. Using selection lines that varied in flower size (large- vs. small-flowered plants), we investigated the effects of variation in flower and fruit size and of a potential defense, fruit abortion, on larval performance. In this system, infested fruits are significantly more likely to be aborted than non-infested fruits; however, it is unclear whether fruit abortion is effective as a defense. Larger flowers gave rise to larger fruits with more seeds, and larvae that were heavier at emergence. Fruit abortion was frequently observed (ca. 40% of the infested fruits). From aborted fruits, larvae emerged earlier and were substantially lighter than larvae emerging from non-aborted fruits. The lower mass at emergence of larvae from aborted fruits indicates that abortion is a resistance mechanism. Assuming that lower larval mass implies fewer resources invested in the frugivore, these results also suggest that abortion is likely to benefit the plant as a defense mechanism, by limiting both resources invested in attacked fruits, as well as the risk of secondary attack. This suggests that selective fruit abortion may contribute to the stability of mutualism also in this non-obligate system.

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We thank Jelmer A. Elzinga, Katharina Foerster, Gabriela Gleiser, Antonina Internicola, Susan Kephart and the referees for valuable comments and Anne-Marie Labouche for discussion. We thank Rui Candeias, Franck Chalard, Daniel Croll, Zoé Dumas, Jelmer Elzinga, René Husi, Gwenaelle Le Lay, Jean-Luc Muralti, and Samuel Neuenschwander for practical help. This study was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant no. 3100A0_12204/1 to G. B.) and the US National Science Foundation (DEB-0075318 to L. D.). All experiments reported here comply with the current laws in Switzerland.

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Correspondence to Giorgina Bernasconi.

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Communicated by Florian Schiestl.

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Burkhardt, A., Delph, L.F. & Bernasconi, G. Benefits and costs to pollinating, seed-eating insects: the effect of flower size and fruit abortion on larval performance. Oecologia 161, 87–98 (2009).

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  • Flower number
  • Nursery pollination
  • Pollination mutualism
  • Pre-dispersal seed predation
  • Silene alba