Consumption of a nectar alkaloid reduces pathogen load in bumble bees
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- Manson, J.S., Otterstatter, M.C. & Thomson, J.D. Oecologia (2010) 162: 81. doi:10.1007/s00442-009-1431-9
Diet has a significant effect on pathogen infections in animals and the consumption of secondary metabolites can either enhance or mitigate infection intensity. Secondary metabolites, which are commonly associated with herbivore defense, are also frequently found in floral nectar. One hypothesized function of this so-called toxic nectar is that it has antimicrobial properties, which may benefit insect pollinators by reducing the intensity of pathogen infections. We tested whether gelsemine, a nectar alkaloid of the bee-pollinated plant Gelsemium sempervirens, could reduce pathogen loads in bumble bees infected with the gut protozoan Crithidia bombi. In our first laboratory experiment, artificially infected bees consumed a daily diet of gelsemine post-infection to simulate continuous ingestion of alkaloid-rich nectar. In the second experiment, bees were inoculated with C. bombi cells that were pre-exposed to gelsemine, simulating the direct effects of nectar alkaloids on pathogen cells that are transmitted at flowers. Gelsemine significantly reduced the fecal intensity of C. bombi 7 days after infection when it was consumed continuously by infected bees, whereas direct exposure of the pathogen to gelsemine showed a non-significant trend toward reduced infection. Lighter pathogen loads may relieve bees from the behavioral impairments associated with the infection, thereby improving their foraging efficiency. If the collection of nectar secondary metabolites by pollinators is done as a means of self-medication, pollinators may selectively maintain secondary metabolites in the nectar of plants in natural populations.