Chemistry of floral rewards: intra- and interspecific variability of nectar and pollen secondary metabolites across taxa - Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew research repository
Skip to main content
Shared Research Repository
Journal article

Chemistry of floral rewards: intra- and interspecific variability of nectar and pollen secondary metabolites across taxa

24 October 2018


Floral chemistry mediates plant interactions with pollinators, pathogens, and herbivores, with major consequences for fitness of both plants and flower visitors. The outcome of such interactions often depends on compound dose and chemical context. However, chemical diversity and intraspecific variation of nectar and pollen secondary chemistry are known for very few species, precluding general statements about their composition. We analyzed methanol extracts of flowers, nectar, and pollen from 31 cultivated and wild plant species, including multiple sites and cultivars, by liquid-chromatography?mass-spectrometry. To depict the chemical niche of each tissue type, we analyzed differences in nectar and pollen chemical richness, absolute and proportional concentrations, and intraspecific variability. We hypothesized that pollen would have higher concentrations and more compounds than nectar, consistent with Optimal Defense Theory and pollen's importance as a male gamete. To investigate chemical correlations across and within tissues, which could reflect physiological constraints, we quantified chemical overlap between conspecific nectar and pollen, and phenotypic integration of individual compounds within tissue types. Nectar and pollen were chemically differentiated both across and within species. Of 102 compounds identified, most occurred in only one species. Machine-learning algorithms assigned samples to the correct species and tissue type with 98.6% accuracy. Consistent with our hypothesis, pollen had 23.8- to 235-fold higher secondary chemical concentrations and 63% higher chemical richness than nectar. The most common secondary compound classes were flavonoids, alkaloids, terpenoids, and phenolics (primarily phenylpropanoids including chlorogenic acid). The most common specific compound types were quercetin and kaempferol glycosides, known to mediate biotic and abiotic effects. Pollens were distinguished from nectar by high concentrations of hydroxycinnamoyl-spermidine conjugates, which affect plant development, abiotic stress tolerance, and herbivore resistance. Although chemistry was qualitatively consistent within species and tissue types, concentrations varied across cultivars and sites, which could influence pollination, herbivory, and disease in wild and agricultural plants. Analyses of multivariate trait space showed greater overlap across sites and cultivars in nectar than pollen chemistry; this overlap reflected greater within-site and within-cultivar variability of nectar. Our analyses suggest different ecological roles of nectar and pollen mediated by chemical concentration, composition, and variability.


File nameDate UploadedVisibilityFile size
20 Dec 2019
1.37 MB
20 Dec 2019
2.17 MB
20 Dec 2019
160 kB