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Foraging strategies of insects for gathering nectar and pollen, and implications for plant ecology and evolution
Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, . V. 2. No. 2. P. 185209 (25).
The majority of species of flowering plants rely on pollination by insects, so that their reproductive success and in part their population structure are determined by insect behaviour. The foraging behaviour of insect pollinators is flexible and complex, because efficient collection of nectar or pollen is no simple matter. Each flower provides a variable but generally small reward that is often hidden, flowers are patchily distributed in time and space, and are erratically depleted of rewards by other foragers. Insects that specialise in visiting flowers have evolved an array of foraging strategies that act to improve their efficiency, which in turn determine the reproductive success of the plants that they visit. This review attempts a synthesis of the recent literature on selectivity in pollinator foraging behaviour, in terms of the species, patch and individual flowers that they choose to visit.

The variable nature of floral resources necessitate foraging behaviour based upon flexible learning, so that foragers can respond to the pattern of rewards that they encounter. Fidelity to particular species allows foragers to learn appropriate handling skills and so reduce handling times, but may also be favoured by use of a search image to detect flowers. The rewards received are also used to determine the spatial patterns of searches; distance and direction of flights are adjusted so that foragers tend to remain within rewarding patches and depart swiftly from unrewarding ones. The distribution of foragers among patchy resources generally conforms to the expectations of two simple optimal foraging models, the ideal free distribution and the marginal value theorem. Insects are able to learn to discriminate among flowers of their preferred species on the basis of subtle differences in floral morphology. They may discriminate upon the basis of flower size, age, sex or symmetry and so choose the more rewarding flowers. Some insects are also able to distinguish and reject depleted flowers on the basis of ephemeral odours left by previous visitors. These odours have recently been implicated as a mechanism involved in interspecific interactions between foragers.

From the point of view of a plant reliant upon insect pollination, the behaviour of its pollinators (and hence its reproductive success) is likely to vary according to the rewards offered, the size and complexity of floral displays used to advertise their location, the distribution of conspecific and of rewards offered by other plant species, and the abundance and behaviour of other flower visitors.

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