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Research and Innovation

Study Finds More Social Insects Have Weaker Immune Response, Highlights Role of Hygiene

Sweat bee (Halictus ligatus). Photo credit: Elsa Youngsteadt.

For Immediate Release

Margarita López-Uribe

Research from North Carolina State University finds that among eusocial insects – like ants, bees and termites – the more individuals there are in a typical species colony, the weaker the species’ immune response. The finding strongly suggests that hygiene behaviors, and not just immune systems, play a key role in keeping eusocial insects healthy.

Eusocial insects live in groups. And living at close quarters with many other individuals would appear to increase their risk of contracting disease. Yet eusocial insects are incredibly successful, raising the question of how they are able to thrive.

The “social group hypothesis,” argues that the eusocial lifestyle has given eusocial insects stronger immune systems. A second hypothesis, the “relaxed selection hypothesis,” argues that eusocial insects have evolved specific behaviors that reduce the risk of disease transmission.

“We wanted to test the social group hypothesis to see which of these hypotheses was accurate,” says Margarita López-Uribe, a postdoctoral researcher at NC State and lead author of a paper on the work.

To test the social group hypothesis, the researchers tested the “encapsulation response” in 11 different insect species: six eusocial insects, including ant, eusocial bee, eusocial wasp and termite species; and five non-eusocial insects, including non-eusocial bee, non-eusocial wasp and cockroach species.

The encapsulation response is an immune response in which hemocytes in an insect’s hemolymph engulf and immobilize any foreign substances that enter the insect’s body. Hemocytes are roughly analogous to white blood cells, while hemolymph is roughly analogous to blood in mammals.

For this study, the researchers inserted a probe into the insect samples and measured how strong the encapsulation response was.

They found that eusocial insects generally had a less pronounced immune response than their non-eusocial counterparts. They also found that the larger the colony size associated with a species, the weaker its immune response.

For example, honey bees (Apis mellifera) form large colonies and exhibit complex group behaviors – and they had a significantly less pronounced encapsulation response than sweat bees (Halictus ligatus), which live in much smaller groups.

“This tells us that the behaviors we see in eusocial species – like grooming each other or bringing antifungal materials into nests or hives – are playing an important role in colony health,” López-Uribe says. “And this argues in favor of the relaxed selection hypothesis.”

The paper, “Reduced cellular immune response in social insect lineages,” was published online March 9 in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters. The paper was co-authored by Warren Sconiers, Steven Frank, Robert Dunn and David Tarpy of NC State.

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Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Reduced cellular immune response in social insect lineages”

Authors: Margarita M. López-Uribe, Warren B. Sconiers, Steven D. Frank, Robert R. Dunn and David R. Tarpy, North Carolina State University

Published: March 9, Biology Letters

DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2015.0984

Abstract: Social living poses challenges for individual fitness because of the increased risk of disease transmission among conspecifics. Despite this challenge, sociality is an evolutionarily successful lifestyle, occurring in the most abundant and diverse group of organisms on earth—the social insects. Two contrasting hypotheses predict the evolutionary consequences of sociality on immune systems. The social group hypothesis posits that sociality leads to stronger individual immune systems because of the higher risk of disease transmission in social species. By contrast, the relaxed selection hypothesis proposes that social species have evolved behavioural immune defences that lower disease risk within the group, resulting in lower immunity at the individual level. We tested these hypotheses by measuring the encapsulation response in 11 eusocial and non-eusocial insect lineages. We built phylogenetic mixed linear models to investigate the effect of behaviour, colony size and body size on cellular immune response. We found a significantly negative effect of colony size on encapsulation response (mcmcGLMM p < 0.05; pGLS p < 0.05). Our findings suggest that insects living in large societies may rely more on behavioural mechanisms, such as hygienic behaviours, than on immune function to reduce the risk of disease transmission among nest-mates.

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