Specific recognition of reproductive parasite workers by nest-entrance guards in the bumble bee bombus terrestris

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Background: The impact of social parasites on their hosts' fitness is a strong selective pressure that can lead to the evolution of adapted defence strategies. Guarding the nest to prevent the intrusion of parasites is a widespread response of host species. If absolute rejection of strangers provides the best protection against parasites, more fine-tuned strategies can prove more adaptive. Guarding is indeed costly and not all strangers constitute a real threat. That is particularly true for worker reproductive parasitism in social insects since only a fraction of non-nestmate visitors, the fertile ones, can readily engage in parasitic reproduction. Guards should thus be more restrictive towards fertile than sterile non-nestmate workers. We here tested this hypothesis by examining the reaction of nest-entrance guards towards nestmate and non-nestmate workers with varying fertility levels in the bumble bee Bombus terrestris. Because social recognition in social insects mainly relies on cuticular lipids (CLs), chemical analysis was also conducted to examine whether workers' CLs could convey the relevant information upon which guards could base their decision. We thus aimed to determine whether an adapted defensive strategy to worker reproductive parasitism has evolved in B. terrestris colonies.Results: Chemical analysis revealed that the cuticular chemical profiles of workers encode information about both their colony membership and their current fertility, therefore providing potential recognition cues for a suitable adjustment of the guards' defensive decisions. We found that guards were similarly tolerant towards sterile non-nestmate workers than towards nestmate workers. However, as predicted, guards responded more aggressively towards fertile non-nestmates.Conclusion: Our results show that B. terrestris guards discriminate non-nestmates that differ in their reproductive potential and respond more strongly to the individuals that are a greatest threat for the colony. Cuticular hydrocarbons are the probable cues underlying the specific recognition of reproductive parasites, with the specific profile of highly fertile bees eliciting the agonistic response when combined with non-colony membership information. Our study therefore provides a first piece of empirical evidence supporting the hypothesis that an adapted defensive strategy against worker reproductive parasitism exists in B. terrestris colonies. © 2013 Blacher et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.




Blacher, P., Boreggio, L., Leroy, C., Devienne, P., Châline, N., & Chameron, S. (2013). Specific recognition of reproductive parasite workers by nest-entrance guards in the bumble bee bombus terrestris. Frontiers in Zoology, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1742-9994-10-74

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