Giehr J. and Heinze J.

 

Abstract

Background

The intense interactions among closely related individuals in animal societies provide perfect conditions for the spread of pathogens. Social insects have therefore evolved counter-measures on the cellular, individual, and social level to reduce the infection risk. One striking example is altruistic self-removal, i.e., lethally infected workers leave the nest and die in isolation to prevent the spread of a contagious disease to their nestmates. Because reproductive queens and egg-laying workers behave less altruistically than non-laying workers, e.g., when it comes to colony defense, we wondered whether moribund egg-layers would show the same self-removal as non-reproductive workers. Furthermore, we investigated how a lethal infection affects reproduction and studied if queens and egg-laying workers intensify their reproductive efforts when their residual reproductive value decreases (“terminal investment”).

Results

We treated queens, egg-laying workers from queenless colonies, and non-laying workers from queenright colonies of the monogynous (single-queened) ant Temnothorax crassispinus either with a control solution or a solution containing spores of the entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium brunneum. Lethally infected workers left the nest and died away from it, regardless of their reproductive status. In contrast, infected queens never left the nest and were removed by workers only after they had died. The reproductive investment of queens strongly decreased after the treatment with both, the control solution and the Metarhizium brunneum suspension. The egg laying rate in queenless colonies was initially reduced in infected colonies but not in control colonies. Egg number increased again with decreasing number of infected workers.

Conclusions

Queens and workers of the ant Temnothorax crassispinus differ in their reaction to an infection risk and a reduced life expectancy. Workers isolate themselves to prevent contagion inside the colony, whereas queens stay in the nest. We did not find terminal investment; instead it appeared that egg-layers completely shut down egg production in response to the lethal infection. Workers in queenless colonies resumed reproduction only after all infected individuals had died, probably again to minimize the risk of infecting the offspring.