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Department of Biological Sciences


The nectar of many plant species contains defensive compounds that have been hypothesized to benefit plants through a variety of mechanisms. However, the relationship between nectar defenses and plant fitness has not been established for any species. We experimentally manipulated gelsemine, the principal alkaloid of Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), in nectar to determine its effect on pollinator visitation, nectar robber visitation, and male and female plant reproduction. We found that nectar robbers and most pollinators probed fewer flowers and spent less time per flower on plants with high compared to low nectar alkaloids. High alkaloids decreased the donation of fluorescent dye, an analogue of pollen used to estimate male plant reproduction, to neighboring plants by one-third to one-half. However, nectar alkaloids did not affect female plant reproduction, measured as pollen receipt, fruit set, seed set, and seed mass. The weak effects of nectar alkaloids on female reproduction could represent a balance between the altered behavior of nectar robbers and pollinators, or it could be that neither of these interactions affected plant reproduction. Taken together, these results suggest that secondary compounds in nectar may have more costs than benefits for plants.