Antibiotic treatment impairs protein digestion in the honeybee, Apis mellifera

28 May 2020

Nutritional stress due to habitat transformation and loss is one of several factors contributing to current declines in global bee populations. Bees obtain protein from pollen, which in honeybees is consumed and digested by nurse bees. They then distribute the protein to the rest of the colony in the form of hypopharyngeal gland secretions. Little is known of how efficiently honeybees digest protein. Moreover, antibiotics are used by beekeepers as in-hive treatments for diseases and may interfere with microbial contributions to protein digestion. Caged, newly emerged workers of Apis mellifera scutellata were fed caseinate as protein source, to investigate the effects of protein intake and antibiotic treatment on digestive efficiency. These workers were fed protein:carbohydrate ratios of 1:120, 1:50 and 1:15 or pure sucrose for 9 days. Half the cages received dietary oxytetracycline at a concentration used by beekeepers. Antibiotic exposure did not affect survival or protein consumption. Protein digestive efficiency increased with increasing levels of protein in the diet, although a decrease would have contributed to maintaining nutrient balance. Importantly, we show that antibiotic exposure impaired protein digestive efficiency, especially on low-protein diets. This may be particularly important when colonies are restricted to a single protein deficient source of pollen.