Immunity and sociality in insects

An important and fascinating group of insects are the social insects, essentially the ants, bees, wasps, and termites. Throughout this chapter, many examples pointing to insect immunity having specificity and greater functional complexity than previously assumed come from social insects. Social insects will also be particularly sensitive to issues relating to the existence of specific immune responses (e.g. Table 14.2). Therefore, time will be taken here to briefly outline further related aspects of the evolution of social insects and their immune defences.

Social insects invest heavily in brood care; in fact, co-operative brood care is a defining element of sociality in insects (and elsewhere). It is therefore fitting that the first demonstration in insects of the transfer of immune priming to offspring should have been in a social insect, the European bumblebee B. terrestris (Sadd et al., 2005). In a social insect colony there are overlapping generations, and both temporal and spatial stability of the environment. In such a setting, there is a clear benefit if a mother can influence her offspring's immunity in line with the pathogen environment that she has herself encountered. Additionally, specific immune priming within individuals, as has also been shown in B. terrestris (Sadd and Schmid-Hempel, 2006), will be beneficial where the probability of individual re-exposure is high.

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