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Females of the European beewolf preserve their honeybee prey against competing fungi


Dr Erhard Strohm, Theodor-Boveri-Institut für Biowissenschaften, Zoologie III, Biozentrum, Am Hubland, D-97074 Würzburg, Germany.


1. Females of the European beewolf Philanthus triangulum (Hymenoptera, Sphecidae) provision brood cells with paralysed honeybees as larval food. Because brood cells are located in warm, humid locations there is a high risk of microbial decomposition of the provisions. Low incidence of fungus infestation (Aspergillus sp.) in nests in the field suggested the presence of an anti-fungal adaptation.

2. To test whether the paralysis caused the protection from fungus infestation, the timing of fungus growth on bees that were freeze-killed, paralysed but not provisioned, and provisioned regularly by beewolf females was determined. Fungus growth was first detected on freeze-killed bees, followed by paralysed but not provisioned bees. By contrast, fungus growth on provisioned bees was delayed greatly or even absent. Thus, paralysis alone is much less efficient in delaying fungus growth than is regular provisioning.


Observations  of beewolves in their nests revealed that females lick the body surface of their prey very thoroughly during the period of excavation of the brood cell.

4. To separate the effect of a possible anti-fungal property of the brood cell and the licking of the bees, a second experiment was conducted. Timing of fungus growth on paralysed bees did not differ between artificial and original brood cells. By contrast, fungus growth on bees that had been provisioned by a female but were transferred to artificial brood cells was delayed significantly. Thus, the treatment of the bees by the female wasp but not the brood cell caused the delay in fungus growth.

5. Beewolf females most probably apply anti-fungal chemicals to the cuticle of their prey. This is the first demonstration of the mechanism involved in the preservation of provisions in a hunting wasp. Some kind of preservation of prey as a component of parental care is probably widespread among hunting wasps and might have been a prerequisite for the evolution of mass provisioning.