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Effects of immunostimulation on social behavior, chemical communication and genome-wide gene expression in honey bee workers (Apis mellifera)

Freddie-Jeanne Richard13*, Holly L Holt2 and Christina M Grozinger23

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratoire Ecologie Evolution Symbiose, UMR CNRS 6556, University of Poitiers, 40 avenue du Recteur Pineau, Cedex, F-86022, POITIERS, France

2 Department of Entomology, Center for Pollinator Research, Center for Chemical Ecology, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, 16802, USA

3 Previous address: Department of Entomology, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC, 27695, USA

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BMC Genomics 2012, 13:558  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-13-558

Published: 16 October 2012



Social insects, such as honey bees, use molecular, physiological and behavioral responses to combat pathogens and parasites. The honey bee genome contains all of the canonical insect immune response pathways, and several studies have demonstrated that pathogens can activate expression of immune effectors. Honey bees also use behavioral responses, termed social immunity, to collectively defend their hives from pathogens and parasites. These responses include hygienic behavior (where workers remove diseased brood) and allo-grooming (where workers remove ectoparasites from nestmates). We have previously demonstrated that immunostimulation causes changes in the cuticular hydrocarbon profiles of workers, which results in altered worker-worker social interactions. Thus, cuticular hydrocarbons may enable workers to identify sick nestmates, and adjust their behavior in response. Here, we test the specificity of behavioral, chemical and genomic responses to immunostimulation by challenging workers with a panel of different immune stimulants (saline, Sephadex beads and Gram-negative bacteria E. coli).


While only bacteria-injected bees elicited altered behavioral responses from healthy nestmates compared to controls, all treatments resulted in significant changes in cuticular hydrocarbon profiles. Immunostimulation caused significant changes in expression of hundreds of genes, the majority of which have not been identified as members of the canonical immune response pathways. Furthermore, several new candidate genes that may play a role in cuticular hydrocarbon biosynthesis were identified. Effects of immune challenge expression of several genes involved in immune response, cuticular hydrocarbon biosynthesis, and the Notch signaling pathway were confirmed using quantitative real-time PCR. Finally, we identified common genes regulated by pathogen challenge in honey bees and other insects.


These results demonstrate that honey bee genomic responses to immunostimulation are substantially broader than the previously identified canonical immune response pathways, and may mediate the behavioral changes associated with social immunity by orchestrating changes in chemical signaling. These studies lay the groundwork for future research into the genomic responses of honey bees to native honey bee parasites and pathogens.

Honey bees; Immunity; Genomics; Social behavior; Social immunity; Chemical ecology; Cuticular hydrocarbons; Nestmate recognition