Milkweed Pollination - A Sticky Situation

Milkweed plants, Asclepias spp. have a unique method of transferring pollen from one plant to the other for cross-pollination. Pollen is aggregated in sac-like bundles called pollinia, located on either side of the stigmatic chamber. The two bundles are strung together with a gland (filament) at the top of the stigmatic chamber.

Bees, wasps, flies, beetles and butterflies visit the flowers for nectar. Milkweed plants typically produce a lot of nectar, it is replenished overnight, to the delight of nocturnal moths, and the remaining nectar is ready for the first diurnal visitors in the morning.

For accessing nectar, floral visitors prop themselves on one of the five flower hoods, sliding their tongues down the side of the hood where the nectar is held. They must be careful not to slip their leg down into the flower between the anthers.

When pulling their leg out, they could snag it on the filament holding together the sticky pollinia sacs.
Pollina stuck to the legs of a great
black wasp, Sphex pensylvanicus
The sticky pollinium sacs are carried to other milkweed plants on their legs and if the insect again ‘slips’ the pollinia can be inserted into the stigmatic chamber ensuring cross-pollination. Unable to pull their leg out, smaller bees can become trapped in the flowers and perish.

In a study by Fishbein and Venable (1996), small- and medium-sized bees, and medium-sized butterflies had the lowest removal rates of pollinia. Their study found that it was the larger bees, like bumble bees that were most effective at transferring pollinia from one plant to the other.

Leafcutter bee, Megachile sp. alighting
on top of the flower hoods to nectar.
Ivey et al. (2003), also found large carpenter bees, Xylocopa spp. and bumble bees, Bombus spp. effective pollinators, partly due to their foraging efficiency; they visit flowers methodically, probing all the hoods of a flower, and visiting more flowers per flowerhead.

Leafcutter bees are common visitors of milkweed feeding on nectar. They rarely snag pollinium sacs so are considered ineffective pollinators.

Small carpenter bees, Ceratina spp. prop themselves on the top of the hood and slide their tongue down the side of the hood to reach nectar.

Cuckoo bees, Coelioxys spp. are true nectar thieves. The have no pollen-collecting structures on their legs. They only visit flowers for nectar because they are cleptoparasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other bees.

This particular cuckoo bee is a cleptoparasite of leafcutter bees,  Megachile spp. Females have a tapered abdomen ending in a sharp point that is used to break through leafcutter brood cells.

Another example of a small-sized bee, yellow faced bees, Hylaeus spp. are frequent visitors to swamp milkweed in late summer for nectar.

Soldier beetles, Chauliognathus spp. also love to feed on nectar on milkweed plants but are rarely found carrying pollinia.

What seems to be a not-so-mutualistic relationship between floral visitor and plant, where floral visitors are exploiting nectar resources, cross-pollination is still occurring due to the effective visitation by large bees, who transfer the polllinium sacs from one plant to another.

Fishbein, M., & Venable, D. L. (1996). Diversity and temporal change in the effective pollinators of Asclepias tuberosa. Ecology, 1061-1073.

Ivey, C. T., Martinez, P., & Wyatt, R. (2003). Variation in pollinator effectiveness in swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata (Apocynaceae). American Journal of Botany, 90(2), 214-225.

Kephart, S. R. (1983). The partitioning of pollinators among three species of Asclepias. Ecology, 120-133.