2020 journal article
Bacterial exposure leads to variable mortality but not a measurable increase in surface antimicrobials across ant species
Social insects have co-existed with microbial species for millions of years and have evolved a diversity of collective defenses, including the use of antimicrobials. While many studies have revealed strategies that ants use against microbial entomopathogens, and several have shown ant-produced compounds inhibit environmental bacterial growth, few studies have tested whether exposure to environmental bacteria represents a health threat to ants. We compare four ant species’ responses to exposure to Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus epidermidis bacteria in order to broaden our understanding of microbial health-threats to ants and their ability to defend against them. In a first experiment, we measure worker mortality of Solenopsis invicta , Brachymyrmex chinensis , Aphaenogaster rudis , and Dorymyrmex bureni in response to exposure to E. coli and S. epidermidis . We found that exposure to E. coli was lethal for S. invicta and D. bureni , while all other effects of exposure were not different from experimental controls. In a second experiment, we compared the antimicrobial ability of surface extracts from bacteria-exposed and non-exposed S. invicta and B. chinensis worker ants, to see if exposure to E. coli or S. epidermidis led to an increase in antimicrobial compounds. We found no difference in the inhibitory effects from either treatment group in either species. Our results demonstrate the susceptibility to bacteria is varied across ant species. This variation may correlate with an ant species’ use of surface antimicrobials, as we found significant mortality effects in species which also were producing antimicrobials. Further exploration of a wide range of both bacteria and ant species is likely to reveal unique and nuanced antimicrobial strategies and deepen our understanding of how ant societies respond to microbial health threats.