Chemical and genetic defenses against disease in insect societies

Adam Stow*, Andrew Beattie

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

46 Citations (Scopus)


The colonies of ants, bees, wasps and termites, the social insects, consist of large numbers of closely related individuals; circumstances ideal for contagious diseases. Antimicrobial assays of these animals have demonstrated a wide variety of chemical defenses against both bacteria and fungi that can be broadly classified as either external antiseptic compounds or internal immune molecules. Reducing the disease risks inherent in colonies of social insects is also achieved by behaviors, such as multiple mating or dispersal, that lower genetic relatedness both within- and among colonies. The interactions between social insects and their pathogens are complex, as illustrated by some ants that require antimicrobial and behavioral defenses against highly specialized fungi, such as those in the genus Cordyceps that attack larvae and adults and species in the genus Escovopsis that attack their food supplies. Studies of these defenses, especially in ants, have revealed remarkably sophisticated immune systems, including peptides induced by, and specific to, individual bacterial strains. The latter may be the result of the recruitment by the ants of antibiotic-producing bacteria but the extent of such three-way interactions remains unknown. There is strong experimental evidence that the evolution of sociality required dramatic increases in antimicrobial defenses and that microbes have been powerful selective agents. The antimicrobial chemicals and the insect-killing fungi may be useful in medicine and agriculture, respectively.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1009-1013
Number of pages5
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2008


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