Evidence for passive chemical camouflage in the parasitic mite Varroa destructor

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Kather, R ; Drijfhout, FP ; Shemilt, S ; Martin, SJ

Social insect colonies provide a stable and safe environment for their members. Despite colonies been heavily guarded, parasites have evolved numerous strategies to invade and inhabit these hostile places. Two common strategies are chemical mimicry via biosynthesis of the hosts' odour or chemical camouflage were compounds are acquired straight from the host. The ectoparasitic mite Varroa destructor feeds on the heamolymph of its honeybee host Apis mellifera and uses chemical mimicry to remain undetected as it lives on the adult host during its phoretic phase or while reproducing on the honeybee brood. During the mite life cycle it switches between host adults and brood, which requires it to adjust its profile to mimic the very different odours of honeybee brood and adults. In a series of transfer experiments using adult bees and pupae, we tested whether V. destructor does this by synthesising compounds or using chemical camouflage. We show that V. destructor required direct access to the host cuticle to mimic its odour and was unable to synthesise host-specific compounds itself. Mites use chemical camouflage to mimic the host odour, even when dead, indicating a passive physico-chemical mechanism of the parasite cuticle. The chemical profile of V. destructor was adjusted within three to nine hours after switching hosts, demonstrating that passive camouflage is a highly efficient, fast and flexible way for the mite’s to adapt to a new host's profile when moving between different host life stages, or host colonies.
  • References (2)

    2Chemical Ecology Group, School of Physical and Geographical Sciences, LennardJones Laboratory, Keele University, Keele ST 5 5BG, UK

    3School of Environment and Life Sciences, The University of Salford, Manchester M5 4WT, UK

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