Monthly Archives: January 2016

Bees: How do they Combat Disease?

A honeybee hive sick with disease can spell the end of a colony. Recent research has shown bees can use vaccinations and nurse one another to protect themselves from and prevent certain diseases. But how exactly do they do it?


Honeybees live in huge colonies that co-operatively rear brood (developing eggs and larvae), so must find some way of protecting the next generation against disease. To do this, the workers actually naturally immunize their young against certain diseases which they might encounter. The findings of a recent paper, published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, finally reveal how the important immune-signal protein vitellogenin works to do this.

It was found foraging workers pick up and bring back contaminated pollen and nectar to the hive, and workers create royal jelly using it. The bacteria picked up from the environment persists in the jelly, and is then fed exclusively to the queen. The pathogens are digested in the queen’s gut and stored in the queen’s fat body (an organ similar to a liver). Fragments of the bacteria are then ‘carried’ by vitellogenin, taken via the blood to developing eggs inside the queen. These young are now immunized, all without taking a step outside their hexagonal brood cell.

Now that we know how bees immunize their young against infection, scientists can work on synthesizing a vaccine to prevent commercial bee colonies from becoming infected with disease- possibly aiding the fight against the crisis of colony collapse disorder (CCD).

But not all diseases in bees can be fought with immunity inherited from a parent. So how else do honeybees fight infection?


Much like communist societies, honeybee hives divide up the hugely varied workload between different ‘castes’ of the colony (workers, drones and queen), and further divide workers into roles based on their size and age. Older, more experienced workers may be more likely to forage for the colony, and act as guard bees (they have actually been found to patrol the entrance the hive!). Younger, more naive workers however are usually more suited to nursing duties, which include feeding and tending to the queen and brood, as well as medical specialists which provide sick workers with anti-biotic laced honey.

A recent study, published in Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, gave nurse bees infected with a Nosema ceranae parasite a choice of honey from different plants. Bees with a higher level of infection tended to eat more sunflower honey, which contains the most antimicrobial activity. It also reduced the level of infection in the bees by 7%. A separate study suggests different honeys are effective against different diseases the bees may encounter. For example linden honey was better at fighter off a an infection of European foulbrood whereas sunflower honey was more effective against American foulbrood.

Nurse bees have other medical roles to reduce infection in a hive. For example, they can act as undertakers and remove the corpses of dead bees from the colony, dumping them far from the entrance. This behaviour is used to avoid spreading infections from pathogens and entomopathogenic fungi that proliferate on the bodies of dying insects,

In both of these incredible behaviours, bees can vaccinate and immunize their brood and sister workers by means of medicinal honey and food contaminated with bacteria. But where do these come from in the first place?

Natural Remedies

Floral nectar typically contains plant secondary compounds (those used for defence by the plant) which possess antimicrobial properties. This can be very useful to bees. Before the publishing of a recent study in PLoS One, we knew little more than the fact pollinators can reduce their parasite load by consuming nectar containing compounds such as nicotine.

This recent research has indicated parasitized bumblebees are taking advantage of these plant secondary metabolites in the wild, such as iridoid glycosides, and have a strong preference for visiting flowers that possess them. This quality of bees to self-medicate, by altering their foraging behaviour whilst parasitized, has massive implications for their ability to fight disease

Honeybees have other sources of medicine besides anti-microbial nectar. They have been found to collect resin from plants and incorporate it into their nests, which may help stop fungal parasities from colonizing their hive. (A study showed bees collect more of the resin when infected with fungal spores)

Final word

The fact that honeybees and bumblebees have evolved so many different ways in which to fight disease implies the risk that our wild pollinators face, as well as just how long they have been co-evolving alongside their assailing antagonists. Climate change and other drivers have recently made the problem of disease much worse, and research into this need to be rapid if we are to help our plighted pollinators.

Further Reading

Erler, S., Denner, A., Bobiş, O., Forsgren, E., & Moritz, R. F. (2014). Diversity of honey stores and their impact on pathogenic bacteria of the honeybee, Apis mellifera. Ecology and evolution, 4(20), 3960-3967.

Gherman, B. I., Denner, A., Bobiş, O., Dezmirean, D. S., Mărghitaş, L. A., Schlüns, H., … & Erler, S. (2014). Pathogen-associated self-medication behavior in the honeybee Apis mellifera. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 68(11), 1777-1784.

Richardson, L. L., Bowers, M. D., & Irwin, R. E. (2015). Nectar chemistry mediates the behavior of parasitized bees: consequences for plant fitness.Ecology.

Salmela, H., Amdam, G. V., & Freitak, D. (2015). Transfer of immunity from mother to offspring is mediated via egg-yolk protein vitellogenin. PLoS Pathog, 11(7), e1005015.

Simone-Finstrom, M. D., & Spivak, M. (2012). Increased resin collection after parasite challenge: a case of self-medication in honey bees. PLoS One,7(3), e34601.