Early queen infection shapes developmental dynamics and induces long-term disease protection in incipient ant colonies

Ecol Lett. 2022 Jan;25(1):89-100. doi: 10.1111/ele.13907. Epub 2021 Nov 1.


Infections early in life can have enduring effects on an organism's development and immunity. In this study, we show that this equally applies to developing 'superorganisms'--incipient social insect colonies. When we exposed newly mated Lasius niger ant queens to a low pathogen dose, their colonies grew more slowly than controls before winter, but reached similar sizes afterwards. Independent of exposure, queen hibernation survival improved when the ratio of pupae to workers was small. Queens that reared fewer pupae before worker emergence exhibited lower pathogen levels, indicating that high brood rearing efforts interfere with the ability of the queen's immune system to suppress pathogen proliferation. Early-life queen pathogen exposure also improved the immunocompetence of her worker offspring, as demonstrated by challenging the workers to the same pathogen a year later. Transgenerational transfer of the queen's pathogen experience to her workforce can hence durably reduce the disease susceptibility of the whole superorganism.

Keywords: automated behavioural monitoring; colony ontogeny; host-pathogen interactions; life-history trade-offs; social insects; transgenerational immunity (TGI).

Publication types

  • Letter

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ants*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Reproduction
  • Seasons
  • Social Behavior