A carbohydrate-rich diet increases social immunity in ants

Adam D. Kay, Abbie J. Bruning, Andy van Alst, Tyler T. Abrahamson, W. O. H. Hughes, Michael Kaspari


Increased potential for disease transmission among nest-mates means living in groups has inherent costs. This increased potential is predicted to select for disease resistance mechanisms that are enhanced by cooperative exchanges among group members, a phenomenon known as social immunity. One potential mediator of social immunity is diet nutritional balance because traits underlying immunity can require different nutritional mixtures. Here, we show how dietary protein–carbohydrate balance affects social immunity in ants. When challenged with a parasitic fungus Metarhizium anisopliae, workers reared on a high-carbohydrate diet survived approximately 2.8× longer in worker groups than in solitary conditions, whereas workers reared on an isocaloric, high-protein diet survived only approximately 1.3× longer in worker groups versus solitary conditions. Nutrition had little effect on social grooming, a potential mechanism for social immunity. However, experimentally blocking metapleural glands, which secrete antibiotics, completely eliminated effects of social grouping and nutrition on immunity, suggesting a causal role for secretion exchange. A carbohydrate-rich diet also reduced worker mortality rates when whole colonies were challenged with Metarhizium. These results provide a novel mechanism by which carbohydrate exploitation could contribute to the ecological dominance of ants and other social groups.

  • Received September 11, 2013.
  • Accepted December 5, 2013.
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