Social immunity in honey bees: royal jelly as a vehicle in transferring bacterial pathogen fragments between nestmates

J Exp Biol. 2021 Apr 1;224(7):jeb231076. doi: 10.1242/jeb.231076. Epub 2021 Mar 31.


Social immunity is a suite of behavioral and physiological traits that allow colony members to protect one another from pathogens, and includes the oral transfer of immunological compounds between nestmates. In honey bees, royal jelly is a glandular secretion produced by a subset of workers that is fed to the queen and young larvae, and which contains many antimicrobial compounds. A related form of social immunity, transgenerational immune priming (TGIP), allows queens to transfer pathogen fragments into their developing eggs, where they are recognized by the embryo's immune system and induce higher pathogen resistance in the new offspring. These pathogen fragments are transported by vitellogenin (Vg), an egg-yolk precursor protein that is also used by nurses to synthesize royal jelly. Therefore, royal jelly may serve as a vehicle to transport pathogen fragments from workers to other nestmates. To investigate this, we recently showed that ingested bacteria are transported to nurses' jelly-producing glands, and here, we show that pathogen fragments are incorporated into the royal jelly. Moreover, we show that consuming pathogen cells induces higher levels of an antimicrobial peptide found in royal jelly, defensin-1.

Keywords: American foulbrood; Honey bees; Royal jelly; Social immunity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria
  • Bees
  • Fatty Acids*
  • Larva
  • Vitellogenins*


  • Fatty Acids
  • Vitellogenins
  • royal jelly