Social insects have many defence mechanisms against pests and pathogens. One of these is hygienic behaviour, which has been studied in detail in the honey bee, Apis mellifera. Hygienic honey bee workers remove dead and diseased larvae and pupae from sealed brood cells, thereby reducing disease transfer within the colony. Stingless bees, Meliponini, also rear brood in sealed cells. We investigated hygienic behaviour in three species of Brazilian stingless bees (Melipona scutellaris, Scaptotrigona depilis, Tetragonisca angustula) in response to freeze-killed brood. All three species had high mean levels of freeze-killed brood removal after 48 hours c. 99% in M. scutellaris, 80% in S. depilis and 62% in T. angustula (N=8 colonies per species; 3 trials per colony). These levels are greater than in unselected honey bee populations, c. 46%. In S. depilis there was also considerable intercolony variation, ranging from 27% to 100% removal after 2 days. Interestingly, in the S. depilis colony with the slowest removal of freeze-killed brood, 15% of the adult bees emerging from their cells had shrivelled wings indicating a disease or disorder, which is as yet unidentified. Although the gross symptoms resembled the effects of deformed wing virus in the honey bee, this virus was not detected in the samples. When brood comb from the diseased colony was introduced to the other S. depilis colonies, there was a significant negative correlation between freeze-killed brood removal and the emergence of deformed worker bees (P= 0.001), and a positive correlation with the cleaning out of brood cells (P= 0.0008). This shows that the more hygienic colonies were detecting and removing unhealthy brood prior to adult emergence. Our results indicate that hygienic behaviour may play an important role in colony health in stingless bees. The low levels of disease normally seen in stingless bees may be because they have effective mechanisms of disease management, not because they lack diseases.
- Received March 21, 2016.
- Accepted October 12, 2016.
- © 2016. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd
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