Facultative expression of hygienic behaviour of honey bees in relation to disease resistance

Marla Spivak, Martha Gilliam, Marla Spivak

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110 Scopus citations


Four experiments were conducted to examine factors that influence the expression of hygienic and non-hygienic behaviour in honey bees, Apis mellifera, and to examine the correlation between this behaviour and resistance to chalkbrood, Ascosphaera apis. Colonies were headed by instrumentally inseminated queens selected on the basis of uncapping and removal behaviour expressed by their progeny. In the first experiment, colony strength was altered by transferring hygienic and non-hygienic colonies from 10-frame field hives to 2-frame observation hives. This treatment significantly reduced the hygienic response of the hygienic bees but did not affect the response of the non-hygienic bees. In the second experiment, hygienic and non-hygienic bees displayed different responses to freeze-killed and live brood which had been partially or entirely uncapped. Both lines of bees recapped both partially and entirely uncapped live brood, but non-hygienic bees also recapped partially uncapped freeze-killed brood, suggesting that non-hygienic bees either could not detect dead or diseased brood or avoided it by sealing it within a comb cell. The third experiment tested whether the degree of hygienic behaviour could be increased by adding hygienic bees to non-hygienic colonies. Adding 20–30% young hygienic bees to non-hygienic colonies did not increase the degree of hygienic behaviour, but adding young non-hygienic bees to hygienic colonies suppressed the behaviour. The results suggest that although hygienic behavior is genetically determined, its expression depends on colony strength and composition of workers within the colony. In the fourth experiment, the hygienic and non-hygienic colonies were fed with pollen patties containing A. apis spores. The weak correspondence that was observed between removal behaviour and physiological resistance to chalkbrood suggested that few colonies are both highly hygienic and physiologically resistant to chalkbrood. Selection against uncapping and removing diseased brood might occur if this behaviour also promotes the spread of disease through the colony. This possibility is discussed in relation to avoidance behaviour of other social insects toward pathogens.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)147-157
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Apicultural Research
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 1993

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Joseph H Martin for his help with inseminations of the queen lines, and Gary Richardson for his statistical assistance. B Oldroyd, R E Page Jr, S Taber, J D Vandenberg, and N N Youssef provided helpful comments on the manuscript. The study was funded by a fellowship to MS from the Center for Insect Science, University of Arizona.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Apis mellifera
  • Ascosphaera apis
  • Brood removal
  • Chalkbrood
  • Disease resistance
  • Genetic factors
  • Honey bees
  • Hygienic behaviour


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