Several years ago Chip Taylor asked me to go along with him as he was exploring Baker Wetlands brainstorming potential ideas/questions that his introduction to research class could investigate. It was there that I first became aware that many of our local plants had extrafloral nectaries. Before, I thought EFN’s were primarily a tropical phenomenon. EFN’s are a great starting point for original student research. There’s a cost to the plant to produce nectar so what is the benefit? It’s probably not to attract pollinators since the nectar is not produced in the flower. Of course this is where evolutionary theory helps to structure your questions. Chip considered developing a fall research project focused on the partridge pea’s extrafloral nectaries and the ants they attract. However, he decided to pursue other questions but I’ve never been able to drop the idea that partridge pea could be a great plant to generate student research questions that can be answered by motivated high school students.
Now, this is not a project to be taken lightly, but it is one that could be pursued over a couple of years or one that you, as a biology teacher could set up on campus in a garden. Here’s the link to a recent paper on the plant/ant mutualism relationship that may give you some ideas of methods you could use if you too find this plant fascinating: Rutter and Rausher (2004) So take a new biology challenge and see if you can’t find some way to incorporate the findings and methods described in this paper into your class.