Nectar is a sugar-rich liquid produced by plants in glands called nectaries or nectarines, either within the flowers with which it attracts pollinating animals, or by extrafloral nectaries, which provide a nutrient source to animal mutualists, which in turn provide antiherbivore protection. Common nectar-consuming pollinators include mosquitoes, hoverflies, wasps, bees, butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, honeyeaters and bats. Nectar plays an important role in the foraging economics and overall evolution of nectar-eating species; for example, nectar and its properties are responsible for the differential evolution of the African honey bee, A. m. scutellata and the western honey bee.
Pollinators feed on the nectar and depending on the location of the nectary the pollinator assists in fertilization and outcrossing of the plant as they brush against the reproductive organs, the stamen and pistil, of the plant and pick up or deposit pollen. Nectar from floral nectaries is sometimes used as a reward to insects, such as ants, that protect the plant from predators. Many floral families have evolved a nectar spur. These spurs are projections of various lengths formed from different tissues, such as the petals or sepals. They allow for pollinators to land on the elongated tissue and more easily reach the nectaries and obtain the nectar reward. Different characteristics of the spur, such as its length or position in the flower, may determine the type of pollinator that visits the flower.
While their function is not always clear, and may be related to regulation of sugars, in most cases there appears to a role in plant insect relationships. In contrast to floral nectaries, nectar produced outside the flower generally have a defensive function. The nectar attracts predatory insects which will eat both the nectar and any plant-eating insects around, thus functioning as 'bodyguards'. Foraging predatory insects show a preference for plants with extrafloral nectaries, particularly some species of ants and wasps, which have been observed to defend the plants bearing them. Acacia is one example of a plant whose nectaries attrsct ants, which protect the plant from other insect herbivores. Among passion flowers, for example, extrafloral nectaries prevent herbivores by attracting ants and deterring two species of butterflies from laying eggs. In many carnivorous plants, extrafloral nectaries are also used to attract insect prey.
Foliar nectaries have also been observed in 39 species of ferns belonging to seven genera and four families of Cyatheales and Polypodiales. They are absent, however, in bryophytes, gymnosperms, early angiosperms, magnoliids, and members of Apiales among the eudicots. Phylogenetic studies and the wide distribution of extrafloral nectaries among vascular plants point to multiple independent evolutionary origins of extrafloral nectaries in at least 457 independent lineages.
The Nicotiana attenuata, a tobacco plant native to the US state of Utah, uses several volatile aromas to attract pollinating birds and moths. The strongest such aroma is benzylacetone, but the plant also adds bitter nicotine, which is less aromatic, so may not be detected by the bird until after taking a drink. Researchers speculate the purpose of this addition is to discourage the forager after only a sip, motivating it to visit other plants, therefore maximizing the pollination efficiency gained by the plant for a minimum nectar output. Neurotoxins such as aesculin are present in some nectars such as that of the California buckeye. Nectar contains water, carbohydrates, amino acids, ions and numerous other compounds.
Some insect pollinated plants lack nectaries, but attract pollinators through other secretory structures. Elaiophores are similar to nectaries but are oil secreting. Osmophores are modified structural structures that produce volatile scents. In orchids these have pheromone qualities. Osmophores have thick domed or papillate epidermis and dense cytoplasm. Platanthera bifolia produces a nocturnal scent from the labellum epidermis. Ophrys labella have dome-shaped, papillate, dark-staining epidermal cells forming osmophores. Narcissus emit pollinator specific volatiles from the corona.