Hemocytes and the (prophenol-) phenoloxidase system constitute the immediate innate immune system in insects. These components of insect immunity are present at any post-embryonic life stage without previous infection. Differences between individuals and species in these immune parameters can reflect differences in infection risk, life expectancy, and biological function. In honeybees which show an age-related division of labor within the worker caste, previous studies demonstrated that foragers show a strongly reduced number of hemoctyes compared to the younger nurse bees. This loss of immune competence has been regarded advantageous with respect to an already high mortality rate due to foraging and to redistribution of energy costs at the colony level. Based on the idea that abandoning hemocytes in all adults would be a reasonably direct regulatory mechanism, we posed the hypothesis that abandoning hemocytic immunity is not restricted to worker honeybees. We tested our hypotheses by performing a comprehensive analysis of hemocyte number and phenoloxidase (PO)-activity levels in immunologically naive workers, queens, and drones. We found that in all three adult phenotypes hemocyte number is dramatically reduced in early adult life. In contrast, we found that the dynamics of PO-activity levels have sex and caste-specific characteristics. In workers, PO activity reached a plateau within the first week of adult life, and in queens enzyme levels continuously increased with age and reached levels twice as high as those found in workers. PO-activity levels slightly declined with age in drones. These data support our hypothesis, from which we infer that the previously reported reduction of hemocyte in foragers is not worker specific but represents a general phenomenon occurring in all honeybee adult phenotypes.
2008. Vol. 54, no 2