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Secondary metabolites in floral nectar have been shown to reduce parasite load in two common bumble bee species. Previous studies on the effects of nectar secondary metabolites on parasitizedbees have focused on single compounds in isolation; however, in nature, bees are simultaneously exposed to multiple compounds. We tested for interactions between the effects of two alkaloids found in the nectar of Nicotiana spp. plants, nicotine and anabasine, on parasite load and mortality in bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) infected with the intestinal parasite Crithidia bombi. Adult worker bees inoculated with C. bombi were fed nicotine and anabasine diet treatments in a factorial design, resulting in four nectar treatment combinations: 2 ppm nicotine, 5 ppm anabasine, 2ppm nicotine and 5 ppm anabasine together, or a control alkaloid-free solution. We conducted the experiment twice: first, with bees incubated under variable environmental conditions (‘Variable’; temperatures varied from 10-35°C with ambient lighting); and second, under carefully controlled environmental conditions (‘Stable’; 27°C incubator, constant darkness). In ‘Variable’, each alkaloid alone significantly decreased parasite loads, but this effect was not realized with the alkaloids in combination, suggesting an antagonistic interaction. Nicotine but not anabasine significantly increased mortality, and the two compounds had no interactive effects on mortality. In ‘Stable’, nicotine significantly increased parasite loads, the opposite of its effect in ‘Variable’. While not significant, the relationship between anabasine and parasite loads was also positive. Interactive effects between the two alkaloids on parasite load were non-significant, but the pattern of antagonistic interaction was similar to that in the variable experiment. Neither alkaloid, nor their interaction, significantly affected mortality under controlled conditions. Our results do not indicate synergy between Nicotiana nectar alkaloids; however, they do suggest a complex interaction between secondary metabolites, parasites, and environmental variables, in which secondary metabolites can be either toxic or medicinal depending on context.


Thorburn LP, Adler LS, Irwin RE and Palmer-Young EC. Variable effects of nicotine, anabasine, and their interactions on parasitized bumble bees [version 2; referees: 2 approved] F1000Research 2015, 4:880 (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.6870.2)

First published: 21 Sep 2015, 4:880 doi: 10.12688/f1000research.6870.1

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