Agri-environment scheme nectar chemistry can suppress the social epidemiology of parasites in an important pollinator

Arran Folly, Hauke Koch, Iain W Farrell, Philip C Stevenson, Mark J F Brown

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Emergent infectious diseases are one of the main drivers of species loss. Emergent infection with the microsporidian Nosema bombi has been implicated in the population and range declines of a suite of North American bumblebees, a group of important pollinators. Previous work has shown that phytochemicals found in pollen and nectar can negatively impact parasites in individuals, but how this relates to social epidemiology and by extension whether plants can be effectively used as pollinator disease management strategies remains unexplored. Here we undertook a comprehensive screen of UK agri-environment scheme plants, a programme designed to benefit pollinators and wider biodiversity in agricultural settings, for phytochemicals in pollen and nectar using liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. Caffeine, which occurs across a range of plant families, was identified in the nectar of Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia), a component of UK agri-environment schemes and a major global crop. We showed that caffeine significantly reduces N. bombi infection intensity, both prophylactically and therapeutically, in individual bumblebees (Bombus terrestris), and, for the first time, that such effects impact social epidemiology, with colonies reared from wild caught queens having both lower prevalence and intensity of infection. Furthermore, infection prevalence was lower in foraging bumblebees from caffeine treated colonies, suggesting a likely reduction in population-level transmission. Combined, these results show that N. bombi is less likely to be transmitted intra-colonially when bumblebees consume naturally-available caffeine, and that this may in turn reduce environmental prevalence. Consequently, our results demonstrate that floral phytochemicals at ecologically relevant concentrations can impact pollinator disease epidemiology and that planting strategies that increase floral abundance to support biodiversity could be co-opted as disease management tools.
Original languageEnglish
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological sciences
Issue number1951
Publication statusPublished - 26 May 2021

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