The ontogeny of immunity: development of innate immune strength in the honey bee (Apis mellifera)

J Insect Physiol. Oct-Nov 2008;54(10-11):1392-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jinsphys.2008.07.016. Epub 2008 Aug 7.


Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are of vital economic and ecological importance. These eusocial animals display temporal polyethism, which is an age-driven division of labor. Younger adult bees remain in the hive and tend to developing brood, while older adult bees forage for pollen and nectar to feed the colony. As honey bees mature, the types of pathogens they experience also change. As such, pathogen pressure may affect bees differently throughout their lifespan. We provide the first direct tests of honey bee innate immune strength across developmental stages. We investigated immune strength across four developmental stages: larvae, pupae, nurses (1-day-old adults), and foragers (22-30 days old adults). The immune strength of honey bees was quantified using standard immunocompetence assays: total hemocyte count, encapsulation response, fat body quantification, and phenoloxidase activity. Larvae and pupae had the highest total hemocyte counts, while there was no difference in encapsulation response between developmental stages. Nurses had more fat body mass than foragers, while phenoloxidase activity increased directly with honey bee development. Immune strength was most vigorous in older, foraging bees and weakest in young bees. Importantly, we found that adult honey bees do not abandon cellular immunocompetence as has recently been proposed. Induced shifts in behavioral roles may increase a colony's susceptibility to disease if nurses begin foraging activity prematurely.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees / anatomy & histology
  • Bees / enzymology
  • Bees / immunology*
  • Cell Count
  • Fat Body / anatomy & histology
  • Fat Body / immunology
  • Hemocytes / immunology
  • Hemolymph / enzymology
  • Hemolymph / immunology
  • Immunity, Innate / immunology
  • Insect Proteins / analysis
  • Insect Proteins / immunology
  • Monophenol Monooxygenase / blood
  • Monophenol Monooxygenase / metabolism


  • Insect Proteins
  • Monophenol Monooxygenase