Phenotypic variation in male and worker encapsulation response in the bumblebee Bombus terrestris



1. Life-history traits such as immunity are often characterised by the presence of large phenotypic variation, but it often remains unclear how and why this variation is maintained by selection.
2. Here an annual social insect, the bumblebee Bombus terrestris , was used to study variation in encapsulation response of males and workers. Bumblebees are a suitable system to study offspring immunity because they are host to a broad variety of different parasites. Bumblebee males, in particular, have a long lifespan compared with other social insect males and their immunity should therefore be an important element for colony reproductive success.
3. Encapsulation response, which was used here as a measurement for the generalised immune defence capacity of an individual, was found to be a highly variable trait. High levels of worker response correlated with low levels of colony parasitism rates.
4. Encapsulation response was found to be (a) lower in males compared with sister workers, and (b) lower in late-produced cohorts compared with early ones.
5. In colonies with delayed sexual reproduction, males had a lower encapsulation response. Thus, investments into immunity seemed reduced in later male cohorts and those eclosing later in the season, perhaps because males had a shorter expected remaining time to acquire matings. The results presented add further evidence that immune defence is a key variable defining colony fitness in social insects.

Key Words

Encapsulation response , immune system , life history , parasitism