Floral volatiles controlling ant behaviour

Patricia Gillian Willmer, Clive Verity Nuttman, Nigel E. Raine, Graham N. Stone, Jonathan G. Pattrick, Kate Henson, Philip Stillman, Lynn McIlroy, Simon G. Potts, Jeffe T. Knudsen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

82 Citations (Scopus)


1. Ants show complex interactions with plants, both facultative and mutualistic, ranging from grazers through seed predators and dispersers to herders of some herbivores and guards against others. But ants are rarely pollinators, and their visits to flowers may be detrimental to plant fitness.

2. Plants therefore have various strategies to control ant distributions, and restrict them to foliage rather than flowers. These 'filters' may involve physical barriers on or around flowers, or 'decoys and bribes' sited on the foliage (usually extrafloral nectaries - EFNs). Alternatively, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are used as signals to control ant behaviour, attracting ants to leaves and/or deterring them from functional flowers. Some of the past evidence that flowers repel ants by VOCs has been equivocal and we describe the shortcomings of some experimental approaches, which involve behavioural tests in artificial conditions.

3. We review our previous study of myrmecophytic acacias, which used in situ experiments to show that volatiles derived from pollen can specifically and transiently deter ants during dehiscence, the effects being stronger in ant-guarded species and more effective on resident ants, both in African and Neotropical species. In these plants, repellence involves at least some volatiles that are known components of ant alarm pheromones, but are not repellent to beneficial bee visitors.

4. We also present new evidence of ant repellence by VOCs in temperate flowers, which is usually pollen-based and active on common European ants. We use these data to indicate that across a wide range of plants there is an apparent trade-off in ant-controlling filter strategies between the use of defensive floral volatiles and the alternatives of decoying EFNs or physical barriers.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)888-900
Number of pages13
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number5
Early online date18 Sept 2009
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2009


  • ant guards; E; E-alpha-farnesene; evolutionary filters; extrafloral nectar; floral repellence; morphological floral barriers; pollen volatiles


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