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PLoS One. 2013 Jun 17;8(6):e66415. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0066415. Print 2013.

Antibacterial immune competence of honey bees (Apis mellifera) is adapted to different life stages and environmental risks.

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BEEgroup, Biocentre, University of Würzburg, Würzburg, Germany.


The development of all honey bee castes proceeds through three different life stages all of which encounter microbial infections to a various extent. We have examined the immune strength of honey bees across all developmental stages with emphasis on the temporal expression of cellular and humoral immune responses upon artificial challenge with viable Escherichia coli bacteria. We employed a broad array of methods to investigate defence strategies of infected individuals: (a) fate of bacteria in the haemocoel; (b) nodule formation and (c) induction of antimicrobial peptides (AMPs). Newly emerged adult worker bees and drones were able to activate efficiently all examined immune reactions. The number of viable bacteria circulating in the haemocoel of infected bees declined rapidly by more than two orders of magnitude within the first 4-6 h post-injection (p.i.), coinciding with the occurrence of melanised nodules. Antimicrobial activity, on the other hand, became detectable only after the initial bacterial clearance. These two temporal patterns of defence reactions very likely represent the constitutive cellular and the induced humoral immune response. A unique feature of honey bees is that a fraction of worker bees survives the winter season in a cluster mostly engaged in thermoregulation. We show here that the overall immune strength of winter bees matches that of young summer bees although nodulation reactions are not initiated at all. As expected, high doses of injected viable E.coli bacteria caused no mortality in larvae or adults of each age. However, drone and worker pupae succumbed to challenge with E.coli even at low doses, accompanied by a premature darkening of the pupal body. In contrast to larvae and adults, we observed no fast clearance of viable bacteria and no induction of AMPs but a rapid proliferation of E.coli bacteria in the haemocoel of bee pupae ultimately leading to their death.

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