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Cannibalism and early capping: strategy of honeybee colonies in times of experimental pollen shortages

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We observed the impact of bad pollen supply (non-foraging due to artificial rain and pollen removal under poor-foraging conditions) on the survival of honey bee larvae, and on the total development time from egg-laying to the capping of a larval cell. Five days of non-foraging led to cannibalism of larvae younger than 3 days old and to a shortening of the time until larvae were sealed, but 4- and 5-day-old larvae survived even worse pollen supply situations. Manual pollen removal and reduction of income (pollen trap) induced cannibalism of younger larvae. The larvae's mean capping age significantly correlated with the mean pollen income: the less pollen was stored by the hive during the larvae's development, the earlier the larvae were capped. Both behavioral patterns lead to a quick reduction in the amount of unsealed older brood in response to a shortage of available protein. Older larvae have the highest pollen demand, so this strategy compensates for a shortage of supply by reducing demand. Additionally worker jelly gets enriched by protein gained from cannibalism, and the early capping of older larvae saves the oldest part of the brood, which represents the highest broodcare investment.

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Schmickl, .T., Crailsheim, .K. Cannibalism and early capping: strategy of honeybee colonies in times of experimental pollen shortages. J Comp Physiol A 187, 541–547 (2001).

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