ABSTRACT

The interaction between insects and the flowers they pollinate has driven the evolutionary diversity of both insects and flowering plants, two groups with the most numerous species on Earth. Insects use vision and olfaction to localize host plants, but we know relatively little about how they find the tiny nectary opening in the flower, which can be well beyond their visual resolution. Especially when vision is limited, touch becomes crucial in successful insect–plant pollination interactions. Here, we studied the remarkable feeding behavior of crepuscular hawkmoths Manduca sexta, which use their long, actively controlled, proboscis to expertly explore flower-like surfaces. Using machine vision and 3D-printed artificial flower-like feeders, we revealed a novel behavior that shows moths actively probe surfaces, sweeping their proboscis from the feeder edge to its center repeatedly until they locate the nectary opening. Moreover, naive moths rapidly learn to exploit these flowers, and they adopt a tactile search strategy to more directly locate the nectary opening in as few as three to five consecutive visits. Our results highlight the proboscis as a unique active sensory structure and emphasize the central role of touch in nectar foraging insect–plant pollinator interactions.

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