Evolutionary ecology of nectar

Ann Bot. 2019 Jan 23;123(2):247-261. doi: 10.1093/aob/mcy132.


Background: Floral nectar is an important determinant of plant-pollinator interactions and an integral component of pollination syndromes, suggesting it is under pollinator-mediated selection. However, compared to floral display traits, we know little about the evolutionary ecology of nectar. Combining a literature review with a meta-analysis approach, we summarize the evidence for heritable variation in nectar traits and link this variation to pollinator response and plant fitness. We further review associations between nectar traits and floral signals and discuss them in the context of honest signalling and targets of selection.

Scope: Although nectar is strongly influenced by environmental factors, heritable variation in nectar production rate has been documented in several populations (mean h2 = 0.31). Almost nothing is known about heritability of other nectar traits, such as sugar and amino acid concentrations. Only a handful of studies have quantified selection on nectar traits, and few find statistically significant selection. Pollinator responses to nectar traits indicate they may drive selection, but studies tying pollinator preferences to plant fitness are lacking. So far, only one study conclusively identified pollinators as selective agents on a nectar trait, and the role of microbes, herbivores, nectar robbers and abiotic factors in nectar evolution is largely hypothetical. Finally, there is a trend for positive correlations among floral cues and nectar traits, indicating honest signalling of rewards.

Conclusions: Important progress can be made by studies that quantify current selection on nectar in natural populations, as well as experimental approaches that identify the target traits and selective agents involved. Signal-reward associations suggest that correlational selection may shape evolution of nectar traits, and studies exploring these more complex forms of natural selection are needed. Many questions about nectar evolution remain unanswered, making this a field ripe for future research.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Flowers / physiology
  • Genetic Variation
  • Plant Nectar / analysis
  • Plant Nectar / genetics*
  • Quantitative Trait, Heritable
  • Selection, Genetic*


  • Plant Nectar