Linking pollinator efficiency to patterns of pollen limitation: small bees exploit the plant-pollinator mutualism

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Seemingly mutualistic relationships can be exploited, in some cases reducing fitness of the exploited species. In plants, the insufficient receipt of pollen limits reproduction. While infrequent pollination commonly underlies pollen limitation (PL), frequent interactions with low-efficiency, exploitative pollinators may also cause PL. In the widespread protandrous herb Campanula americana, visitation by three pollinators explained 63% of the variation in PL among populations spanning the range. Bumblebees and the medium-sized Megachile campanulae enhanced reproductive success, but small solitary bees exacerbated PL. To dissect mechanisms behind these relationships, we scored sex-specific floral visitation, and the contributions of each pollinator to plant fitness using single flower visits. Small bees and M. campanulae overvisited male-phase flowers, but bumblebees frequently visited female-phase flowers. Fewer bumblebee visits were required to saturate seed set compared to other bees. Scaling pollinator efficiency metrics to populations, small bees deplete large amounts of pollen due to highly male-biased flower visitation and infrequent pollen deposition. Thus, small bees reduce plant reproduction by limiting pollen available for transfer by efficient pollinators, and appear to exploit the plant–pollinator mutualism, acting as functional parasites to C. americana. It is therefore unlikely that small bees will compensate for reproductive failure in C. americana when bumblebees are scarce.


bumblebee, Campanula americana, pollination effectiveness, pollen depletion, mutualism exploitation, pollen limitation

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