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Revista Brasileira de Entomologia

Print version ISSN 0085-5626On-line version ISSN 1806-9665

Rev. Bras. entomol. vol.60 no.4 São Paulo Oct./Dec. 2016 


Bombus brasiliensis Lepeletier (Hymenoptera, Apidae) infected with Nosema ceranae (Microsporidia)

Santiago Plischuk a   *  

Carlos E. Lange a   b  

aUniversidad Nacional de La Plata, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, Centro de Estudios Parasitológicos y de Vectores, La Plata, Argentina

bComisión de Investigaciones Científicas de la Provincia de Buenos Aires, La Plata, Argentina


Heavy infections caused by a microsporidium were detected in midgut epithelium cells of two adult workers of the bumble bee Bombus brasiliensis Lepeletier collected near Puerto Iguazú, Misiones province, Argentina. Microsporidium rRNA (16S small subunit) was amplified by 218MITOC primers and produced amplicons indicating presence of Nosema ceranae Fries et al., a virulent pathogen of more than 20 bee species, possibly involved in Apis mellifera L. Colony Collapse Disorder. Campaigns in search of B. brasiliensis between 2008 and 2015 have revealed a possible narrower range in the southeastern area of its known distribution. Effects of N. ceranae infections could be modulating their populations and should not be overlooked. In addition, the wide host range of this microsporidium makes it a potential threat to several endemic bees such as stingless (Meliponini) and orchid bees (Euglossini).

Keywords: Argentina; Brazil; Bumble bee; Colony Collapse Disorder

When compared to other regions of the world, southern South America seems to depict low bumble bee diversity (Williams, 1998). Only ten out of the ca. 250 species of Bombus described worldwide have been reported to inhabit Argentina. Two of them, Bombus ruderatus (Fabricius, 1775) and B. terrestris (L., 1758), are invasive species of relatively recent entry into the southwest of the country from Chile, while the remaining eight are native ( Abrahamovich et al., 2007 and Schmid-Hempel et al., 2014).

According to the last available surveys on their geographic distribution in Argentina (Moure and Sakagami, 1962, Abrahamovich and Díaz, 2001, Abrahamovich et al., 2004 and Abrahamovich et al., 2007), B. pauloensis Friese, 1913 (=B. atratus Franklin, 1913) , B. bellicosus Smith, 1879, B. morio (Swederus, 1787), and B. opifex Smith, 1879 are known to exhibit wide ranges. Bombus tucumanus Vachal, 1904, B. baeri Vachal, 1904, and B. dahlbomii Guérin, 1835 appear to show more limited ranges, while B. brasiliensis Lepeletier, 1836 may possibly occur only in Misiones province at the northeastern tip of the country. Although B. brasiliensis, an assiduous visitor of bromeliad flowers (Bromeliaceae) like Aechmea spp. ( Kaehler et al., 2005 and Schmid et al., 2011) appears to be widespread in Brazil ( Abrahamovich et al., 2004 and Santos Júnior et al., 2015), surveys carried out by our group since January 2008 suggest that its distribution in Argentina may be nowadays considerably reduced. This communication reports the detection of the microsporidium Nosema ceranae infecting B. brasiliensis and argues on a possible effect on the distribution of this bee species on the southeastern part of its range.

After campaigns in search of B. brasiliensis since 2008 done by authors and other team members surveying 32 localities in the provinces of Formosa (Bañado La Estrella, Colonia Perin, El Colorado, Gran Guardia, Ibarreta, Ingeniero Juárez, Laguna Yema, Las Lomitas, Palo Santo, Pirané, Posta Cambio Zalazar, Pozo del Tigre), Chaco (38 km North of Resistencia, Colonia Elisa, Juan José Castelli, Resistencia, Presidencia Roque Sáenz Peña), Corrientes (Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, Corrientes, Estero Santa Lucía, Laguna Iberá, Santo Tomé), and Misiones (Aristóbulo del Valle, Cuña Pirú, El Alcázar, 30 km East of María Magdalena, Montecarlo, Leandro N. Alem, Posadas, Urugua-í, Wanda) (Fig. 1A, Table 1) with no positive results, only six adult workers were collected in February 2015 in the surroundings of Puerto Iguazú, Misiones, northeastern Argentina (Fig. 1A). They were captured while foraging using entomological nets, conserved frozen (-32° C), and identified based on information provided by Moure and Sakagami (1962), Abrahamovich et al. (2005), and Santos Júnior et al. (2015).

Fig. 1 (A) The 32 surveyed localities in northeastern Argentina. Formosa province [Fo]: (1) Ingeniero Juárez; (2) Laguna Yema; (3) Las Lomitas; (4) Bañado La Estrella; (5) Posta Cambio Zalazar; (6) Pozo del Tigre; (7) Colonia Perin; (8) Ibarreta; (9) Palo Santo; (10) Pirané; (11) Gran Guardia; (12) El Colorado. Chaco province [Ch]: (13) J. J. Castelli; (14) Presidencia Roque Saenz Peña; (15) Colonia Elisa; (16) 38 km North of Resistencia; (17) Resistencia. Corrientes province [Co]: (18) Corrientes; (19) Estero Santa Lucía; (20) Colonia Carlos Pellegrini; (21) Laguna Iberá; (22) Santo Tomé. Misiones province [Mi]: (23) Posadas; (24) Leandro N. Alem; (25) Cuña Pirú; (26) Aristóbulo del Valle; (27) El alcázar; (28) Montecarlo; (29) 30 km East of María Magdalena; (30) Wanda; (31) Urugua-í. (★) indicates Puerto Iguazú, the only locality where six Bombus brasiliensis workers were found. (B) Habitat where B. brasiliensis was found. (C) Two distended midgut cells of B. brasiliensis with spores of Nosema ceranae inside. 

Table 1 Date and location of the 32 surveyed localities in northeastern Argentina looking for Bombus brasiliensis. Bold indicates the only campaign with findings (see text for details). 

Province Locality GPS location Date
Chaco 38 km North of Resistencia 27°05'10" S; 58°57'24" W Feb 2015
Colonia Elisa 26°51'57" S; 59°31'51" W Jan 2008
J. J. Castelli 25°54'02" S; 60°32'06" W Feb 2012
Feb 2015
Presidencia Roque Saenz Peña 26°47'04" S; 60°28'17" W Jan 2008
Feb 2012
Feb 2015
Resistencia 27°23'05" S; 58°59'22" W Feb 2015

Corrientes Colonia Carlos Pellegrini 28°32'14" S; 57°11'04" W Jan 2008
Oct 2009
Corrientes 27°27'38" S; 58°47'35" W Jan 2008
Feb 2012
Feb 2015
Estero Santa Lucía 28°01'15" S; 58°01'35" W Jan 2008
Laguna Iberá 28°30'01" S; 57°04'50" W Oct 2009
Santo Tomé 28°32'41" S; 56°01'45" W Feb 2015

Formosa Bañado La Estrella 24°30'32" S; 60°25'36" W Feb 2015
Colonia Perin 25°36'08" S; 60°04'15" W Feb 2015
El Colorado 26°19'57" S; 59°21'37" W Feb 2015
Gran Guardia 25°50'19" S; 58°48'24" W Feb 2012
Ibarreta 25°11'49" S; 58°48'24" W Feb 2012
Feb 2015
Ingeniero Juárez 23°55'230" S; 61°47'58" W Feb 2015
Laguna Yema 24°11'10" S; 61°18'48" W Feb 2015
Las Lomitas 24°43'58" S; 60°33'22" W Feb 2012
Feb 2015
Palo Santo 25°33'57" S; 59°16'52" W Feb 2012
Feb 2015
Pirané 25°40'24" S; 59°05'50" W Feb 2012
Feb 2015
Posta Cambio Zalazar 24°12'47" S; 60°11'46" W Feb 2015
Pozo del Tigre 24°53'55" S; 60°18'25" W Feb 2012
Feb 2015

Misiones 30 km East of María Magdalena 26°11'26" S; 54°17'17" W Feb 2015
Aristóbulo del Valle 27°07'02" S; 54°52'45" W Jan 2008
Cuña Pirú 27°05'17" S; 54°57'09" W Jan 2008
El alcázar 26°43'43" S; 54°47'55" W Jan 2008
Leandro N. Alem 27°35'17" S; 55°15'00" W Jan 2008
Montecarlo 26°33'42" S; 54°43'29" W Sept 2009
Feb 2015
Posadas 27°24'04" S; 55°55'23" W Jan 2008
Feb 2015
Puerto Iguazú 25°38'52" S; 54°32'40" W Jan 2008
Feb 2015
Urugua-í 25°52'24" S; 54°33'31" W Jan 2008
Feb 2015
Wanda 25°57'05" S; 54°34'32" W Jan 2008
Feb 2015

Examination of each individual was performed following dissection techniques under stereoscopic microscopy (×10, ×40) (Lacey and Solter, 2012). Briefly, small portions of different tissues and organs were extracted in order to prepare fresh smears with one-quarter-strength Ringer's solution (Poinar and Thomas, 1984) for detection of microsporidia and protists (Lange and Lord, 2012 and Solter et al., 2012). Observations were done using phase-contrast microscopy (×400, ×1000). Each infected individual was then homogenized in 2 mL of double distilled water and infection intensity (spore load) was quantified using an Improved Neubauer hemocytometer (Undeen and Vávra, 1997). Spore suspensions were obtained by repeated filtration and centrifugation (15 min; 7500 × g) ( Lange and Henry, 1996). Double distilled water was replaced by absolute ethanol in spore suspensions and stored at -32 °C until genetic analysis were performed. Microsporidium rRNA (16S small subunit) was amplified by real time PCR according to Medici et al. (2012) with specific primers for Nosema apis Zander, 1907 (321APIS) and N. ceranae (218MITOC). Amplicons were separated on ethidium bromide-stained 1% agarose gel. Genetic material was purified with an ExoSap-IT kit (Amersham, Biosciences) and sequenced in an automatic MegaBACE Sequence Analyzer (Amersham, Biosciences). Sequences were aligned using SMS software ( Stothard, 2000) and submitted to Genbank.

Microsporidian infections were detected in two individuals of B. brasiliensis collected while foraging on Solanum sp. (Solanaceae) in a farmland 5 km southeast of Puerto Iguazú (25°38'52" S; 54°32'40" W) (Fig. 1B). Diseased individuals did not show obvious external signs of infection. The microsporidium was found infecting cells of the midgut epithelium, many of which were distended due to the heavy presence of spores (Fig. 1C). Infection intensity for each bumble bee was 5.5 × 107 and 4.4 × 107 spores/insect. Samples of spores from both infections were amplified by 218MITOC primers and produced amplicons indicating presence of N. ceranae. One of the sequences (220 bp) was deposited on GeneBank under accession number KX024757.

Nosema ceranae was originally described from the Asian honey bee Apis cerana Fabricius, 1793 ( Fries et al., 1996). Ten years after its description, it was also detected in the European honey bee A. mellifera L., 1758 in Spain ( Higes et al., 2006). Teixeira et al. (2013) evidenced that N. ceranae has been present in Brazil for at least 36 years infecting Africanized honey bees. Plischuk et al. (2009) reported for the first time the presence of this microsporidium in bumble bees infecting three native South American species of genus Bombus [B. pauloensis (named as B. atratus), B. bellicosus, B. morio].

Transmission of N. ceranae is mainly horizontal ( Higes et al., 2008). This microsporidium completes its lifecycle inside midgut epithelial cells. Spores leave the host with the feces and may remain viable in the environment until they enter a new individual per os. During the last decade, numerous studies worldwide have demonstrated high virulence of N. ceranae against A. mellifera ( Paxton et al., 2007 and Higes et al., 2007), suggesting a role in the honey bees Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) (Higes et al., 2008). Effects of N. ceranae in honey bees are relatively well known and include lesions in the midgut epithelium causing metabolic stress and suppressing immune response ( Antúnez et al., 2009 and Mayack and Naug, 2009). Higes et al. (2007) have reported 100% bee mortality 8 days post inoculation under experimental conditions. On the contrary, pathological effects of N. ceranae in bumble bees are not completely clear. Experimental infections on B. terrestris have shown that this pathogen would be highly virulent, colonizing the midgut epithelium and reducing host survival by 48% within one week after exposure ( Graystock et al., 2013).

Because these are the first detections of N. ceranae in B. brasiliensis, effects on the host are yet unknown. However based on the observation that infections in both individuals were advanced and heavy, a significant virulence possibly similar to that described in other hosts would not be unexpected.

An important subject is the possible spread of N. ceranae to other species. Since the vectoring of pathogens by the sharing use of flowers seems to be a relatively common process, the transferring of infective spores between bees and other pollinators appears highly likely ( Graystock et al., 2013 and Graystock et al., 2015), and B. brasiliensis [possibly along with A. mellifera ( Teixeira et al., 2013)] could act as source of N. ceranae to other sympatric species. Recent studies have demonstrated that N. ceranae is capable to infect not only Bombus and Apis species but also solitary bees belonging to genus Andrena (Andrenidae), Osmia, and Heriades (Megachilidae) in Belgium ( Ravoet et al., 2014). Numerous endemic bees inhabit the Neotropical region, as several stingless bees (Meliponini) (Freitas et al., 2009) and orchid bees (Euglossini) (Nemésio, 2009) that could be potential hosts. If these bees are susceptible, the effects of N. ceranae might be enhanced as seen in other, several new host-parasite associations ( Goulson and Hughes, 2015).

Although data about the presence of B. brasiliensis is fragmented, the extension of its geographic distribution appears to be from the southern portions of the Araguaia-Tocantins basin in Mato Grosso, Brazil to northern Argentina and Uruguay in the South. The western limit would be along the Paraná River basin (Mato Grosso do Sul and southern Goiás), whereas to the East it would reach the Atlantic coast ( Santos Júnior et al., 2015).

However, recent studies have shown that the eastern range would actually be narrower than previously thought since that area is inhabited by B. bahiensisSantos Júnior et al., 2015, a recently described sister species ( Santos Júnior et al., 2015). The southwestern range into Argentina also seems to have historically diminished from Chaco, Formosa and Misiones provinces ( Holmberg, 1903, Moure and Sakagami, 1962, Abrahamovich and Díaz, 2001 and Abrahamovich et al., 2004) to only the latter (Abrahamovich et al., 2007). Absence of detections of B. brasiliensis after several campaigns since 2008 at more than 30 localities ( Fig. 1A, Table 1) within the original range may suggests a more restricted presence nowadays, apparently limited to a small area at the northeastern tip of the country (Fig. 1A). Bombus brasiliensis was also present in Uruguay during the last century ( Moure and Sakagami, 1962) but it has not been detected in that country since at least 2005, suggesting that the southernmost distribution could also have suffered a retraction (Santos et al., 2013). In Uruguay, N. ceranae is highly prevalent in B. pauloensis and B. bellicosus ( Arbulo et al., 2015).

Although evidencing a cause-effect link between occurrence of N. ceranae and the apparent range retraction of B. brasiliensis constitute an elusive goal, we feel it is important to report on the infections we have found. Nosema ceranae may be at least one of the drivers modulating the populations of this host.


Authors are grateful to C. Grundler, A. Panizza and A. Martins. Special thanks to C. Bardi, M. Pocco, S. Pelizza and C. Scattolini for their help in field work, and to S. Medici for technical assistance. This study was supported by Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET), Comisión de Investigaciones Científicas (CICPBA), and Agencia Nacional de Promoción Científica y Tecnológica (PICT 2012-0851; PICT 2012-0199).


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1 Although the name B. atratus is widely adopted, the valid name seems to be B. pauloensis. See Moure and Melo (2012) for detailed information.

Received: January 06, 2016; Accepted: June 03, 2016

* Corresponding author. E-mail: Plischuk).

Conflicts of interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

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