Bleaching of reef building corals and other symbiotic cnidarians due to the loss of their dinoflagellate algal symbionts (=zooxanthellae), and/or their photosynthetic pigments, is a common sign of environmental stress. Mass bleaching events are becoming an increasingly important cause of mortality and reef degradation on a global scale, linked by many to global climate change. However, the cellular mechanisms of stress-induced bleaching remain largely unresolved. In this study, the frequency of apoptosis-like and necrosis-like cell death was determined in the symbiotic sea anemone Aiptasia sp. using criteria that had previously been validated for this symbiosis as indicators of programmed cell death (PCD) and necrosis. Results indicate that PCD and necrosis occur simultaneously in both host tissues and zooxanthellae subject to environmentally relevant doses of heat stress. Frequency of PCD in the anemone endoderm increased within minutes of treatment. Peak rates of apoptosis-like cell death in the host were coincident with the timing of loss of zooxanthellae during bleaching. The proportion of apoptosis-like host cells subsequently declined while cell necrosis increased. In the zooxanthellae, both apoptosis-like and necrosis-like activity increased throughout the duration of the experiment (6 days), dependent on temperature dose. A stress-mediated PCD pathway is an important part of the thermal stress response in the sea anemone symbiosis and this study suggests that PCD may play different roles in different components of the symbiosis during bleaching.