Toxic Nectar


I was introduced to the concept of toxic nectar thanks to a species of shrub quite familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Appalachian Mountains. Locals will tell you to never place honeybee hives near a patch of rosebay (Rhododendron maximum) for fear of so-called "mad honey." Needless to say, the concept intrigued me.

A quick internet search revealed that this is not a new phenomenon either. Humans have known about toxic nectar for thousands of years. In fact, honey made from feeding bees on species like Rhododendron luteum and R. ponticum has been used more than once during times of war. Hives containing toxic honey would be placed along known routs of Roman soldiers and, after consuming the seemingly innocuous treat, the soldiers would collapse into a stupor only to be slaughtered by armies lying in wait.

Rhododendron luteum

Rhododendron luteum

The presence of toxic nectar seems quite confusing. The primary function of nectar is to serve as a reward for pollinators after all. Why on Earth would a plant pump potentially harmful substances into its flowers?

It is worth mentioning at this point that the Rhododendrons aren't alone. A multitude of plant species produce toxic nectar. The chemicals that make them toxic, though poorly understood, vary almost as much as the plants that make them. Although there have been repeated investigations into this phenomenon, the exact reason(s) remain elusive to this day. Still, research has drummed up some interesting data and many great hypotheses aimed at explaining the patterns.

Catalpa nectar has been shown to deter some ants and butterflies but not large bees.

Catalpa nectar has been shown to deter some ants and butterflies but not large bees.

The earliest investigations into toxic nectar gave birth to the pollinator fidelity hypothesis. Researchers realized that meany bees appear to be less sensitive to alkaloids in nectar than are some Lepidopterans. This led to speculation that perhaps some plants pump toxic compounds into their nectar to deter inefficient pollinators, leading to more specialization among pollinating insects that can handle the toxins.

Another hypothesis is the nectar robber hypothesis. This hypothesis is quite similar to the pollinator fidelity hypothesis except that it extends to all organisms that could potentially rob nectar from a flower without providing any pollination services. As such, it is a matter of plant defense.

The nectar of  Cyrilla racemiflora  is thought to be toxic to some bees.

The nectar of Cyrilla racemiflora is thought to be toxic to some bees.

Others feel that toxic nectar may be less about pollinators or nectar robbers and more about microbial activity. Sugary nectar can be a breeding ground for microbes and it is possible that plants pump toxic compounds into their nectar to keep it "fresh." If this is the case, the antimicrobial benefits could outweigh the cost to pollinators that may be harmed or even deterred by the toxic compounds.

Finally, it could be that toxic nectar may have no benefit to the plant whatsoever. Perhaps toxic nectar is simply the result of selection for defense compounds elsewhere in the plant and therefore is expressed in the nectar as a result of pleiotropy. If this is the case then toxic nectar might not be under as strong selection pressures as is overall defense against herbivores. If so, the plants may not be able to control which compounds eventually end up in their nectar. Provided defense against herbivores outweighs any costs imposed by toxic nectar then plants may not have the ability to evolve away from such traits.

Where Spathodea campanulata is invasive, its nectar causes increased mortality in native bee hives.

Where Spathodea campanulata is invasive, its nectar causes increased mortality in native bee hives.

So, where does the science land us with these hypotheses? Do the data support any of these theories? This is where things get cloudy. Despite plenty of interest, evidence in support of the various hypotheses is scant. Some experiments have shown that indeed, when given a choice, some bees prefer non-toxic to toxic nectar. Also, toxic nectar appears to dissuade some ants from visiting flowers, however, just as many experiments have demonstrated no discernible effect on bees or ants. What's more, at least one investigation found that the amount of toxic compounds within the nectar of certain species varies significantly from population to population. What this means for pollination is anyone's' guess.

It is worth noting that most of the pollination-related hypotheses about toxic nectar have been tested using honeybees. Because they are generalist pollinators, there could be something to be said about toxic nectar deterring generalist pollinators in favor of specialist pollinators. Still, these experiments have largely been done in regions where honeybees are not native and therefore do not represent natural conditions.

Simply put, it is still too early to say whether toxic nectar is adaptive or not. It could very well be that it does not impose enough of a negative effect on plant fitness to evolve away from. More work is certainly needed. So, if you are someone looking for an excellent thesis project, here is a great opportunity. In the mean time, do yourself a favor and don't eat any mad honey.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]



California Bumblebee Decline Linked to Feral Honeybees


Worldwide, pollinators are having a rough go of it. Humans have altered the landscape to such a degree that many species simply can't keep up. The proverbial poster child for pollinator issues is the honeybee (Apis mellifera). As a result, countless native pollinators get the short shrift when it comes to media attention. This isn't good because outside of intense industrial agriculture, native pollinators make up the bulk of pollination services. Similarly, honeybee fandom often overshadows any potential negative effects these introduced insects might be having on native pollinators.

Long term scientific investigations are starting to paint a more nuanced picture of the impact introduced honeybees are having on native ecosystems. For instance, research based out of California is finding that honeybees are playing a big role in the decline of native bumblebee populations. What's more, these negative impacts are only made worse in the light of climate change.


For over 15 years, ecologist Dr. Diane Thompson has been studying bumblebee populations in central California. At no point during those early years did any of the bumblebee species she focuses on show signs of decline. In fact, they were quite common. Then, around the year 2000, feral honeybees started to establish themselves in the area. Honeybee colonies were becoming more and more numerous each and every year and that is when she started noticing changes in bumblebee behavior and numbers.

You see, honeybees are extremely successful foragers. They are generalists, which means they can visit a wide variety of flower types. As a result, they are extremely good at competing for floral resources compared to native bumblebees. Her results show that increases in the number of honeybee colonies caused not only a reduction in foraging among the native bumblebees, they also caused a reduction in bumblebee colony success. The native bumblebees simply weren't raising as many young as they were before honeybees entered the system.

Decreased rainfall cause a decline in flower densities of  Scrophularia californica , a key resource for native bumblebees in this system.

Decreased rainfall cause a decline in flower densities of Scrophularia californica, a key resource for native bumblebees in this system.

Climate change is only making things worse. As drought years become not only more severe but also more intense, the amount of flowers available during the growing season also declines. With fewer flowers on the landscape, bumblebees and honeybees are forced into closer proximity for foraging and the clear winner in most foraging disputes are the tenacious honeybees. As such, bumblebees are chased off the already diminishing floral displays. By 2014, Dr. Thompson had quantified a significant decline in native bumblebee populations as a result.

It would be all too convenient to say that this research represents an isolated case. It does not. More and more research is finding that honeybees frequently out-compete native pollinators for resources such as food and nesting sites. Such effects are especially pronounced in rapidly changing ecosystems. Although honeybees are here to stay, it is important that we realize the impacts that these feral insects are having on our native ecosystems and begin to better appreciate and facilitate the services provided by our native pollinators. 

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

How Plants Influence Honeybee Caste System

Is has long been known that food fed to larval honeybees influences their development and therefore their place in the hive. Larvae fed a mixture of pollen and honey, often referred to as "bee bread," develop into sterile workers whereas larvae fed special secretions termed "royal jelly" from nurses within the colony will develop into queens. Despite this knowledge, the mechanisms underpinning such drastic developmental differences have remained a mystery... until now.

A team of researchers from Nanjing University in China have uncovered the secret to honeybee caste systems and it all comes down to the plants themselves. It all has to do with tiny molecules within plants called microRNA. In eukaryotic organsisms, microRNA plays a fundamental role in the regulation of gene expression. In plants, they have considerable effects on flower size and color. In doing so, they can make floral displays more attractive to busy honeybees.

Photo Credit: [1]

Photo Credit: [1]

As bees collect pollen and nectar, they pick up large quantities of these microRNA molecules. Back in the hive, these products are not distributed equally, which influences the amount of microRNA molecules that are fed to developing larvae. The team found that microRNA molecules are much more concentrated in bee bread than they are in royal jelly. Its this difference in concentrations that appears to be at the root of the caste system.

Larvae that were fed bee bread full of microRNA molecules developed smaller bodies and reduced, sterile ovaries. In other words, they developed into the worker class. Alternatively, larvae fed royal jelly, which has much lower concentrations of microRNA, developed along a more "normal" pathway, complete with functioning ovaries and a fuller body size; they developed into queens.

All of this hints at a deep co-evolutionary relationship. The fact that these microRNA molecules not only make plants more attractive to pollinators but also influence the caste system of these insects is quite remarkable. Additionally, this opens up new doors into understanding co-evolutionary dynamics. If horizontal transfer of regulatory molecules between two vastly different kingdoms of life can manifest in such important ecological relationships, there is no telling what more is awaiting discovery. 

Further Reading: [1]