Exotic plant infestation is associated with decreased modularity and increased numbers of connectors in mixed-grass prairie pollination networks.
The majority of pollinating insects are generalists whose lifetimes overlap flowering periods of many potentially suitable plant species. Such generality is instrumental in allowing exotic plant species to invade pollination networks. The particulars of how existing networks change in response to an invasive plant over the course of its phenology are not well characterized, but may shed light on the probability of long-term effects on plant-pollinator interactions and the stability of network structure. Here we describe changes in network topology and modular structure of infested and non-infested networks during the flowering season of the generalist non-native flowering plant, Cirsium arvense in mixed-grass prairie at Badlands National Park, South Dakota, USA. Objectives were to compare network-level effects of infestation as they propagate over the season in infested and non-infested (with respect to C. arvense) networks. We characterized plant-pollinator networks on 5 non-infested and 7 infested 1-ha plots during 4 sample periods that collectively covered the length of C. arvense flowering period. Two other abundantly-flowering invasive plants were present during this time: Melilotus officinalis had highly variable floral abundance in both C. arvense-infested and non-infested plots and Convolvulus arvensis, which occurred almost exclusively in infested plots and peaked early in the season. Modularity, including roles of individual species, and network topology were assessed for each sample period as well as in pooled infested and non-infested networks. Differences in modularity and network metrics between infested and non-infested networks were limited to the third and fourth sample periods, during flower senescence of C. arvense and the other invasive species; generality of pollinators rose concurrently, suggesting rewiring of the network and a lag effect of earlier floral abundance. Modularity was lower and number of connectors higher in infested networks, whether they were assessed in individual sample periods or pooled into infested and non-infested networks over the entire blooming period of C. arvense. Connectors typically did not reside within the same modules as C. arvense, suggesting that effects of the other invasive plants may also influence the modularity results, and that effects of infestation extend to co-flowering native plants. We conclude that the presence of abundantly flowering invasive species is associated with greater network stability due to decreased modularity, but whether this is advantageous for the associated native plant-pollinator communities depends on the nature of perturbations they experience.