Bad-News Bees? Nectar Robbing and the “Temptation to Cheat” in Mutualisms
Speaker: Judith Bronstein, University of Arizona
The recent literature on mutualism is preoccupied with the idea that mutualists face a “temptation to cheat.” Unless it is suppressed, such cheating is supposed to lead to mutualisms’ demise. Yet, mutualisms are everywhere, cheating is ubiquitous, and effective control mechanisms are often absent. What explains this discrepancy between predictions from theory and observations in the field? I will discuss field studies from my lab that have reframed the central question: rather than asking how mutualists can control cheating partners, we delineate the conditions in which it is and isn’t advantageous for partners to cheat rather than cooperate. Many plants are pollinated by bees that also act as non-mutualistic nectar-robbers; there is minimal evidence that plants have traits that keep them “honest”. Our data suggest that simple behavioral principles can illuminate why pollinators (and other mutualists) may rarely succumb to the “temptation to cheat,” even when this option is readily available.