Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Bee Semen Can Save the Queen from Dysentery

Scientists are a step closer to protecting honey bees from the fungal parasite Nosema apis, which causes dysentery and weakens hives considerably.

When Nosema spores are swallowed by bees, the fungus penetrates the cells of the stomach lining and then infects nearby healthy cells lining the gut. The spores are eventually excreted by the bee and then ingested by other bees as they clean contaminated honeycombs.

The effects on the hive include a reduced ability of infected nurse bees to produce royal jelly fed to the hive’s brood. The behaviour of infected nurse bees also changes, neglecting brood-rearing duties in favour of foraging and hive-guarding behaviours.

Furthermore, eggs produced by the queen bee may fail to produce mature larvae, infected queens cease egg-laying and die, and the life expectancy of infected bees halves.

Now, in a study published in the Journal of Proteome, researchers from The University of Western Australia have identified several immune molecules against the parasite in the semen of male bees.

“We already knew that substances in bee semen were able to recognise and kill Nosema apis very efficiently,” said lead author Dr Julia Grassl. “However, it is surprising how quickly sick males can activate an efficient response to protect their sperm and ultimately the queen against the disease during mating.”

The findings could see the immune molecules developed into a bee-derived medication to heal parasite-infected hives, or the breeding of more disease-tolerant bees.