Extrafloral nectar (EFN) provides plants with indirect defence against herbivores by attracting predatory insects, predominantly ants. Decades of research have supported the role of EFN as an effective plant defence, dating back to Thomas Belt's description of ants on acacia in 1874. Despite this extensive body of literature, knowledge of the ecological role of EFN has rarely been applied in the field of pest management. We review the existing literature on the use of EFN in agriculture and consider the obstacles that have hindered this transition. Chief among these obstacles is the influence of ecological context on the outcome of EFN-mediated interactions. As such, we consider the options for various agricultural systems in the light of the growth habit of EFN-producing species, focusing first on orchard species and then on herbaceous crops. In each case, we highlight the benefits and difficulties of utilizing EFN as a pest management tool and of measuring its efficacy. Synthesis and applications. We argue that it is time for a shift in extrafloral nectar (EFN) research towards applied settings and seek to address the question: How can a context-dependent and often inducible plant trait be utilized as a reliable tool in agricultural pest management? Breeding crops for increased EFN production, and intercropping with EFN-producing plants, can enhance assemblages of beneficial insects in many agricultural settings. Orchard systems, in particular, provide an ecological context in which the attraction of ants can contribute to cost-effective and sustainable pest management programmes over a broad geographic range.
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© 2016 The Authors
Jones IM, Koptur S, von Wettberg EJ. The use of extrafloral nectar in pest management: overcoming context dependence. Journal of Applied Ecology. 2017 Apr;54(2):489-99.