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Solitary bee larvae prioritize carbohydrate over protein in parentally provided pollen


Austin, Alexander; Gilbert, James (2021), Solitary bee larvae prioritize carbohydrate over protein in parentally provided pollen, Dryad, Dataset,


Most organisms must regulate their nutritional intake in an environment full of complex food choices. While this process is well understood for self-sufficient organisms, dependent offspring, such as bee larvae, in practice have limited food choices because food is provided by parents. Nutrient balancing may therefore be achieved by offspring, by parents on offspring’s behalf, or by both, whether cooperatively or in conflict.

We used the Geometric Framework to investigate the capacity of dependent larval mason bees (Osmia bicornis) to regulate their intake of protein and carbohydrate. Female Osmia seal eggs individually inside cells they have provisioned with pollen, and have no contact with developing offspring, allowing offspring choices to be studied in isolation. Herbivorous insect larvae are typically expected to balance protein and carbohydrate to maximise growth and reproduction.

Contrary to prediction, carbohydrate and not protein mediated both growth and survival to pupation. Accordingly, larvae prioritised maintaining a constant intake of carbohydrate and self-selected a relatively carbohydrate-biased diet compared to other hymenopterans, while tolerating wide excesses and deficiencies of protein, rendering them potentially vulnerable to dietary change or manipulation. Reasons for prioritising carbohydrate may include (1) the relative abundance of protein in their normal pollen diet, (2) the relative paucity of nectar in parental provisions making carbohydrate a scarce resource, or (3) the requirement for diapause for all O. bicornis larvae. Larvae were intolerant of moderate dietary dilution, likely reflecting an evolutionary history of nutrient-dense food.

Our results demonstrate that dependent offspring can remain active participants in balancing their own nutrients even when sedentary, and, moreover, even in mass provisioning systems where parents and offspring have no physical contact. Research should now focus on whether and how the evolutionary interests of parent and dependent offspring coincide or conflict with respect to food composition, and the implications for species’ resilience to changing environments.

Usage Notes

This data package includes the files and code needed to reproduce all the figures and analyses of the following paper: Austin, A, Gilbert, J. Solitary bee larvae prioritize carbohydrate over protein in parentally provided pollen.


Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour, Award: Small grant