Can flower constancy in nectaring butterflies be explained by Darwin's interference hypothesis?

Goulson, D, Stout, J C and Hawson, S A (1997) Can flower constancy in nectaring butterflies be explained by Darwin's interference hypothesis? Oecologia, 112 (2). pp. 225-231. ISSN 0029-8549

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When foraging for nectar many insects exhibit flower constancy (a preference for flower species which they have previously visited) and frequently ignore rewarding flowers of other species. Darwin proposed the favoured explanation for this behaviour, hypothesizing that learning of handling skills for one flower species interferes with the ability to recall handling skills for previously learned species. A crucial element of this hypothesis is that savings in handling time resulting from constancy must exceed increases in travelling time necessitated by ignoring other suitable species. A convincing quantification of this trade-off has not been achieved and tests to date on bumblebees indicate that savings in handling time are too small to offset an increase in travelling time. To assess further the validity of Darwin's hypothesis, handling and flight times of the butterfly, Thymelicus flavus, were measured under natural conditions, and the abundance and reward provided by the available flower species quantified to enable estimation of foraging efficiency. Butterflies exhibited a mean increase in handling time of 0.85 s per flower associated with switching between flower species, although the magnitude of this difference varied greatly among flower species. Switching was not associated with a decrease in travelling time, contrary to expectation. Switching was more frequent following a lower than average reward from the last flower visited. In butterflies, flights serve functions other than movement between nectar sources, such as mate location (unlike worker bees). Hence constancy may be a viable strategy to reduce time spent in handling flowers and increase time available for other activities. Although savings in handling time may be small, Darwin's interference hypothesis remains a valid explanation for flower constancy in foraging butterflies.

Item Type: Article
Schools and Departments: School of Life Sciences > Evolution, Behaviour and Environment
Depositing User: Catrina Hey
Date Deposited: 26 Nov 2014 11:35
Last Modified: 26 Nov 2014 11:35
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