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Dyeing but not dying: colourful dyes as a non-lethal method of food labelling for in vitro-reared bee larvae

Several environmental factors (e.g. food source, pesticides, toxins, parasites and pathogens) influence development and maturation of honey bees (Apis mellifera). Therefore, controlled experimental conditions are mandatory when studying the impact of environmental factors: particularly food quality and nutrient consumption.

In vitro larval rearing is a standard approach for monitoring food intake of larvae and the labelling of food is necessary to quantify intake in controlled feeding experiments. Here, we tested the suitability of two food dyes, Allura Red and Brilliant Blue, in an experimental set up using in vitro reared honey bee larvae and freshly hatched adult workers.

Absorbance of both dyes was measured, in food and dye-fed larvae, to determine the optimal dye concentrations for accurate detection and quantification. By quantifying relative dye concentrations in dye mixtures, relative concentrations of mixed dyes can be estimated independent of the total food consumed by the larvae.

Survival assays were conducted to test the impact of both dyes on larval and worker bee survival. Worker bees showed no increase in adult mortality, when fed with dyed honey. Larval survival was not significantly different until the late pupal stage.

The physiological impact of dye feeding was tested by measuring larval immune response. No changes in innate immune gene expression were detectable for larvae fed with dyed and non-dyed food. In conclusion, we established a non-invasive food labelling protocol for food intake quantification in in vitro reared honey bee larvae, using non-toxic, inexpensive, and easy to apply food dyes.