Acacia plant can release chemicals to stop ants from interfering in pollination

December 28th, 2009 - 3:17 pm ICT by ANI  

London, December 28 (ANI): In a new research, scientists have found that the acacia plant can stop ants from interfering in their pollination process, by producing chemicals that send the approaching insects into a defensive frenzy, forcing them into retreat.

In Africa and in the tropics, aggressive, stinging ants feed on the sugary nectar the acacia plant provides and live in nests protected by its thick bark.

But, according to a report in BBC News, these same plants that provide shelter and produce nourishing nectar to feed the insects also make chemicals that ward them off.

Nigel Raine, a scientist working at Royal Holloway, University of London in the UK, and colleagues, carried out the research.

He explained how the ants provide a useful service for the acacias.

“They guard the plants they live on. If other animals try to come and feed on the rich, sugary nectar, they will attack them,” said Dr Raine.

But, being inhabited by aggressive insects could make one important aspect of a plant’s life difficult - flowering.

Flowers need to be pollinated so the plant can reproduce.

As to what stops the ants from attacking the helpful little pollinators or stealing all the nectar that attracts them, Dr Raine said, “Some plants do this structurally, with physical barriers to stop ants getting on to the flower, or sticky or slippery surfaces that the insects can’t walk on.”

“Acacias don’t have these barriers. They have very open flowers, but still, the ants don’t seem to go on to them. We wanted to know why,” he said.

Flowers can produce a variety of chemicals.

Floral volatile compounds can act as signals - drawing in pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds in with their irresistible aromas.

To the ants, however, they are far from irresistible.

“The flowers seem to produce chemicals that are repellent to the ants,” said Dr Raine. “They release these particularly during the time when they’re producing lots of pollen, so the ants are kept off the flowers,” he added.

In recent studies, Dr Raine and his colleagues found that the plants with the closest relationships with ants - those that provided homes for their miniature guard army - produced the chemicals that were most effective at keeping the ants at bay.

“And that was associated with the flower being open. So, the chemicals are probably in the pollen,” he said. (ANI)

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