"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

August 9, 2013

Ascosphaera apis

This is the second post in a series of blog posts written by students from my third year Evolutionary Parasitology unit (ZOOL329/529) class of 2013. This particular post was written by Karen McDonald on a paper published in 2008 on how bees use resin to protect their hive against fungal parasites (you can read the previous post about toxic birds and their lice here).

Animals have evolved many different strategies to fight parasite infections; from eating tough or poisonous leaves (which would normally never be chosen as part of their diet), dirt bathing, grooming themselves with plants that contain chemicals that kill parasites, living in hostile environments that parasites can't tolerate, to drinking toxic substances like alcohol to kill internal parasites. Animals in general are individuals and care only for their own personal well-being and so the parasite-ridding strategies animals use really only affect their own health and well-being. But bees, on the other hand, are different.

SEM photo of Ascosphaera apis sporeball from here
Bees are communal animals and each bee is an important part of the hive community. The article I am going to talk about today shows that bees don't act on a self-motivated level where they are only concerned with their own well-being, instead bees work only to improve and support the whole hive community. Wild bees always smother the inside of their nests with sticky plant resin and the reason for this was never really understood. Domesticated bees don't use much, if any resin at all. They have been selectively bred to not use it because the sticky resin makes opening the hive and removing the honey and combs very difficult. But domestic bees are also plagued by many, often destructive, parasites.

In 2008 researchers decided to document whether the amount of plant resin that domestic bees use in their hives has an effect on fungal parasite levels in that hive. Two groups of hives were set up; the first group of 12 had the inside of each box painted with thick resin to replicate the nests of wild bees, the second group of 11 boxes were only painted with the type and quantity of resin used by commercial apiaries. Bees from both groups were fed with pollen infected with Chalkbrood, which they ate and/or carried back to their hives.

Photo of chalkbrood-infect larvae from here
Chalkbrood (Ascosphaera apis) is a fungal infection of bee larvae, causing them to die and mummify in the nest (see photo on the right). Adult bees are not affected by the parasite but they do carry it in their bodies and drop spores throughout the nest infecting young bees. Normally, as mentioned above, infected animals are usually only concerned with their own well-being and so the researchers were interested in seeing whether the adults would react to the threat to the larvae or ignore the parasite menace because it did not affect them personally.

Within days, the bees immediately began collecting more resin for their nests. Normally, there are only a few bees in each hive that forage for resin, the majority forage for pollen or nectar. Bees do not eat resin; its only function is to line the nest, so not much energy is used by the hive community to collect it. But when the hive is under threat from a parasite like Chalkbrood, more bees begin to forage for resin and a lot of energy is used to find it.  The nests painted with resin, although infected at the same level, also had a reduced level of infection compared to the commercial standard nests, but the level of infection in all nests dropped as the amount of resin in the nest increased. The bees were using the resin as a form of  social immunity rather than self-immunity.

Simone-Finstrom M.D., Spivak M., (2012) Increased Resin Collection after Parasite Challenge: A Case of Self-Medication in Honey Bees? PloS One, 7(3): e34601. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034601

This post was written by Karen McDonald

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