, Volume 33, Issue 5, pp 319-327

Transmission of a pathogen in Bombus terrestris, with a note on division of labour in social insects

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Summary

Parasites of social insect workers can be transmitted within the colony to other, related host individuals or, alternatively, to unrelated workers of other colonies. Division of labour affects the probability of transmission, as young individuals often work inside the nest whereas older ones often leave the nest to forage. Therefore, the relative probabilities of transmission within-vs. between-nests is also affected by the delay between host infection and the shedding of propagules, i.e. the latent period of the parasite strain. We therefore hypothesized that strains of the flagellate parasite Crithidia bombi (Trypanosomatidae, Zoomastigophorea) infecting workers of the bumble bee Bombus terrestris (Hymenoptera, Apidae) could differ in their delays and coexist in a population. This would be the case if strains that are shed after a short time delay were more efficiently transmitted to other colony members, whereas strains with long delays were more efficiently transmitted to non-related workers in the population. We tested this hypothesis by experimentally varying time delay and by allowing transmission to either sister workers from the same nest or unrelated workers from other nests. Transmission of C. bombi was measured as the number of parasitic cells shed by the exposed workers after a standard period. The results showed that relatedness as such had no effect, but that delay and nest identity were highly significant effects to explain variation in transmission success. There was a significant interaction between nest identity and delay, such that bees of some colonies acted as efficient transmitters for C. bombi under short delays and vice versa. We discuss how division of labour may affect parasitism in social insects and, vice versa, how division of labour may be under selection from the effects of parasitism, using available evidence from the literature.

Correspondence to: P. Schmid-Hempel