Teeming within pollen provisions are diverse communities of symbiotic microbes, which provide a variety of benefits to bees. Microbes themselves may represent a major dietary resource for developing bee larvae. Despite their apparent importance in sustaining bee health, evidence linking pollen-borne microbes to larval health is currently lacking. We examined the effects of microbe-deficient diets on the fitness of larval mason bees. In a series of diet manipulations, microbe-rich maternally collected pollen provisions were replaced with increasing fractions of sterilized, microbe-deficient pollen provisions before being fed to developing larvae. Convergent findings from amino acid and fatty acid trophic biomarker analyses revealed that larvae derived a substantial amount of nutrition from microbial prey and occupied a significantly higher trophic position than that of strict herbivores. Larvae feeding on increasingly sterile diets experienced significant adverse effects on growth rates, biomass and survivorship. When completely deprived of pollen-borne microbes, larvae consistently exhibited marked decline in fitness. We conclude that microbes associated with aged pollen provisions are central to bee health, not only as nutritional mutualists, but also as a major dietary component. In an era of global bee decline, the conservation of such bee-microbe interactions may represent an important facet of pollinator protection strategies.
Keywords: bee larval survivorship; microbes; pollen provisions; trophic biomarker analysis; trophic position.