Mutualisms involve cooperation, but also frequently involve conflict. Plant-pollinator mutualisms are no exception. To facilitate animal pollination, flowering plants often offer pollen (their male gametes) as a food reward. Since plants benefit by maximizing pollen export to conspecific flowers, we might expect plants to cheat on pollen rewards. In intersexual floral mimicry, rewarding pollen-bearing male flowers (models) are mimicked by rewardless female flowers (mimics) on the same plant. Pollinators should therefore learn to avoid the unrewarding mimics. Plants might impede such learning by producing phenotypically variable flowers that cause bees to generalize among models and mimics during learning. In this laboratory study, we used partially artificial flowers (artificial petals, live reproductive parts) modeled after Begonia odorata to test whether variation in the size of rewarding male flowers (models) and unrewarding female flowers (mimics) affected how quickly bees learned both to recognize models and to reject mimics. Live unrewarding female flowers have 33% longer petals and have 31% greater surface area than live rewarding male flowers, which bees should easily discriminate. Yet while bees rapidly learned to reduce foraging effort on mimics, learning was not significantly affected by the degree to which flower size varied. Additionally, we found scant evidence that this was a result of bees altering response speed to maintain decision accuracy. Our study failed to provide evidence that flower size variation in intersexual floral mimicry systems exploits pollinator cognition, though we cannot rule out that other floral traits that are variable may be important. Furthermore, we propose that contrary to expectation, phenotypic variability in a Batesian mimicry system may not necessarily have significant effects on whether receivers effectively learn to discriminate models and mimics.



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© 2021 The authors. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited.


Batesian mimicry, cognition, flower size, generalization, imperfect mimicry, intersexual mimicry, learning, signal detection

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Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution