Honey bee foragers balance colony nutritional deficiencies

Abstract

Honey bee colonies, foraging predominantly on a single pollen source, may encounter nutritional deficits. In the present study, we examined the nutritional resilience of honey bee colonies, testing whether foragers shift their foraging effort towards resources that complement a nutritional deficit. Eight honey bee colonies were kept in screened enclosures and fed for 1 week a pollen substitute diet deficient in a particular essential amino acid. Foragers were subsequently tested for a preference between the same diet previously fed, a different diet that was similarly deficient, or a diet that complemented the deficiency. Foragers preferred the complementary diet over the same or similar diets. Appetitive conditioning tests showed that bees were able to discriminate also between the same and similar diets. Overall, our results support the hypothesis that honey bees prefer dietary diversity, and that they do not just include novel sources but specifically target nutritionally complementary ones. Whereas we specifically focused on deficiencies in essential amino acids, we cannot rule out that bees were also complementing correlated imbalances in other nutrients, most notably essential fatty acids. The ability of honey bees to counter deficient nutrition contributes to the mechanisms which social insects use to sustain homeostasis at the colony level.

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Acknowledgments

This work was funded jointly by a grant from the BBSRC, NERC, the Wellcome Trust, Defra, and the Scottish Government under the Insect Pollinators Initiative (grant no: BB/I000968/1), and with partial support from the Orion Foundation. We thank Tania Masci, Karmi Oxman, and Haim Kalev for their valuable contribution to the work at the apiary and the laboratory.

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Correspondence to Harmen P. Hendriksma.

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Significance statement

Honey bees forage for floral nectar as their main carbohydrate source and for pollen as their main source of amino acids, fatty acids, and micronutrients. It is becoming increasingly appreciated that honey bee colonies require a diet that is nutritionally balanced. Our main finding is that honey bee colonies do not only attempt to diversify their foraging but also that they bias their foraging effort towards a pollen substitute diet that specifically balances colony nutritional deficits. This finding adds a novel ability to honey bee foragers in evaluating collected diet macronutrient composition and in adjusting their foraging effort towards colony nutritional needs. The mechanism by which this is achieved remains to be elucidated. The implication of our study is that honey bee colonies strive to balance their nutrition if appropriate floral resources are available to them.

Communicated by O. Rueppell

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Supplementary to the main paper, (1) methods and results of a diet screening experiment are provided, including (2) diet profiles of amino acid and fatty acid contents, (3) a data table with other nutritional and non-nutritional diet parameters, and (4) analyses of diet colors. (PDF 522 kb)

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Hendriksma, H.P., Shafir, S. Honey bee foragers balance colony nutritional deficiencies. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 70, 509–517 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-016-2067-5

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Keywords

  • Apis mellifera
  • Choice
  • Essential amino acids
  • PER
  • Nutrient balancing
  • Social insects