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Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) Pollen Foraging Reflects Benefits Dependent on Individual Infection Status


Parasites often modify host foraging behavior, for example, by spurring changes to nutrient intake ratios or triggering self-medication. The gut parasite, Nosema ceranae, increases energy needs of the European or Western honey bee (Apis mellifera), but little is known about how infection affects foraging behavior. We used a combination of experiments and observations of caged and free-flying individual bees and hives to determine how N. ceranae affects honey bee foraging behavior. In an experiment with caged bees, we found that infected bees with access to a high-quality pollen were more likely to survive than infected bees with access to a lower quality pollen or no pollen. Non-infected bees showed no difference in survival with pollen quality. We then tested free-flying bees in an arena of artificial flowers and found that pollen foraging bees chose pollen commensurate with their infection status; twice as many infected bees selected the higher quality pollen than the lower quality pollen, while healthy bees showed no preference between pollen types. However, healthy and infected bees visited sucrose and pollen flowers in the same proportions. Among hive-level observations, we found no significant correlations between N. ceranae infection intensity in the hive and the proportion of bees returning with pollen. Our results indicate that N. ceranae-infected bees benefit from increased pollen quality and will selectively forage for higher quality while foraging for pollen, but infection status does not lead to increased pollen foraging at either the individual or hive levels.

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We thank Roy Swenson and Maurice Damon for allowing us to work in their apiaries and sharing their beekeeping knowledge. We thank Georgia Kelly and Sarah Mannel for laboratory assistance and Phillip Adams for assistance in constructing hoarding cages. We are grateful to Dr. Rob Manning for sharing unpublished data on amino acid content of the pollens.


This study was funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award (DE130100709) to LL and James Cook University Honours student support to JF.

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Correspondence to Lori Lach.

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Ferguson, J., Northfield, T. & Lach, L. Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) Pollen Foraging Reflects Benefits Dependent on Individual Infection Status. Microb Ecol 76, 482–491 (2018).

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  • Apis mellifera
  • Parasites
  • Nosema ceranae
  • Pollen preference
  • Foraging behavior
  • Hive