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Oecologia. 2007 Nov;154(2):411-21. Epub 2007 Aug 23.

Contact networks and transmission of an intestinal pathogen in bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) colonies.

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  • 1Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto, 25 Harbord Street, Toronto, ON, Canada M5S 3G5.


In socially living animals, individuals interact through complex networks of contact that may influence the spread of disease. Whereas traditional epidemiological models typically assume no social structure, network theory suggests that an individual's location in the network determines its risk of infection. Empirical, especially experimental, studies of disease spread on networks are lacking, however, largely due to a shortage of amenable study systems. We used automated video-tracking to quantify networks of physical contact among individuals within colonies of the social bumble bee Bombus impatiens. We explored the effects of network structure on pathogen transmission in naturally and artificially infected hives. We show for the first time that contact network structure determines the spread of a contagious pathogen (Crithidia bombi) in social insect colonies. Differences in rates of infection among colonies resulted largely from differences in network density among hives. Within colonies, a bee's rate of contact with infected nestmates emerged as the only significant predictor of infection risk. The activity of bees, in terms of their movement rates and division of labour (e.g., brood care, nest care, foraging), did not influence risk of infection. Our results suggest that contact networks may have an important influence on the transmission of pathogens in social insects and, possibly, other social animals.

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