Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 66, Issue 5, pp 791–796 | Cite as

Social context-dependent immune gene expression in bumblebees (Bombus terrestris)

  • Jeanny Richter
  • Sophie Helbing
  • Silvio Erler
  • H. Michael G. LattorffEmail author
Original Paper


Social insects are prone to attack by parasites as they provide numerous resources of food and brood, homeostatic nest conditions and a high density of individuals, enhancing the transmission of parasites. The defence of social insects might occur at different levels, the individual and the group. Individual defence occurs in part via the innate immune system resulting in the expression of antimicrobial substances. Group level defences, summarised as ‘social immunity’, represent a suite of behavioural and organisational features. Here, all effects contributing to social immunity except for the social context were removed from bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) workers, kept either in groups or solitarily. The gene expression of six effector molecules of the immune system was monitored in both groups and in controls from the same source colonies. The social treatment has a highly significant effect on immune gene expression, with groups exhibiting higher levels of two antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) and two lysozymes. Phenoloxidase is affected at the regulatory level, with a strong upregulation of its suppressor Spn27A in groups suggesting a trade-off with antimicrobial activity. AMPs are strongly upregulated in groups, whereas lysozymes are strongly downregulated in solitary treatments suggesting another trade-off. Clearly, social immunity impacts elements of individual immunity.


Innate immune system Social immunity Quantitative real-time PCR Antimicrobial peptide Lysozyme Phenoloxidase 



We would like to thank D. Kleber and P. Leibe for their help with the lab work. We are grateful to R.J. Paxton and two anonymous referees providing critical comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. Financial support was granted by the BMBF programme FUGATO-Plus (FKZ: 0315126 to HMGL).

Supplementary material

265_2012_1327_MOESM1_ESM.doc (68 kb)
ESM 1 (DOC 68 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeanny Richter
    • 1
  • Sophie Helbing
    • 1
  • Silvio Erler
    • 1
  • H. Michael G. Lattorff
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Institut für Biologie, Molekulare ÖkologieMartin-Luther-Universität Halle-WittenbergHalle (Saale)Germany

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