Virulence of Melissococcus plutonius and secondary invaders associated with European foulbrood disease of the honey bee.
European foulbrood is a globally distributed brood disease affecting honey bees. It may lead to lethal infections of larvae and, in severe cases, even to colony collapse. Lately, a profound genetic and phenotypic diversity was documented for the causative agent Melissococcus plutonius. However, experimental work on the impact of diverse M. plutonius strains on hosts with different genetic background is completely lacking and the role of secondary invaders is poorly understood. Here, we address these issues and elucidate the impact and interaction of both host and pathogen on one another. Moreover, we try to unravel the role of secondary bacterial invasions in foulbrood-diseased larvae. We employed in vitro infections with honey bee larvae from queens with different genetic background and three different M. plutonius strains. Larvae infection experiments showed host-dependent survival dynamics although M. plutonius strain 49.3 consistently had the highest virulence. This pattern was also reflected in significantly reduced weights of 49.3 strain-infected larvae compared to the other treatments. No difference was found in groups additionally inoculated with a secondary invader (Enterococcus faecalis or Paenibacillus alvei) neither in terms of larval survival nor weight. These results suggest that host background contributes markedly to the course of the disease but virulence is mainly dependent on pathogen genotype. Secondary invaders following a M. plutonius infection do not increase disease lethality and therefore may just be a colonization of weakened and immunodeficient, or dead larvae.