Sanitizing the fortress: protection of ant brood and nest material by worker antibiotics
Social groups are at particular risk for parasite infection, which is heightened in eusocial insects by the low genetic diversity of individuals within a colony. To combat this, adult ants have evolved a suite of defenses to protect each other, including the production of antimicrobial secretions. However, it is the brood in a colony that are most vulnerable to parasites because their individual defenses are limited, and the nest material in which ants live is also likely to be prone to colonization by potential parasites. Here, we investigate in two ant species whether adult workers use their antimicrobial secretions not only to protect each other but also to sanitize the vulnerable brood and nest material. We find that, in both leaf-cutting ants and weaver ants, the survival of the brood was reduced and the sporulation of parasitic fungi from them increased, when the workers nursing them lacked functional antimicrobial-producing glands. This was the case for both larvae that were experimentally treated with a fungal parasite (Metarhizium) and control larvae which developed infections of an opportunistic fungal parasite (Aspergillus). Similarly, fungi were more likely to grow on the nest material of both ant species if the glands of attending workers were blocked. The results show that the defense of brood and sanitization of nest material are important functions of the antimicrobial secretions of adult ants and that ubiquitous, opportunistic fungi may be a more important driver of the evolution of these defenses than rarer, specialist parasites.
KeywordsParasite Social immunity Social insect Disease resistance Metapleural gland Venom gland Nest hygiene Metarhizium Aspergillus
We thank P. Chappell, C. Frost, R. Mitchell, and J. Parkinson for the technical assistance, V. Norman and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments which improved the manuscript, IBAMA for the permission to collect and export the leaf-cutting ant colonies, Martin Sebesta for providing the weaver ant colonies, and the Royal Society, BBSRC, and Leverhulme Foundation for the funding.
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