Overwintering Is Associated with Reduced Expression of Immune Genes and Higher Susceptibility to Virus Infection in Honey Bees
The eusocial honey bee, Apis mellifera, has evolved remarkable abilities to survive extreme seasonal differences in temperature and availability of resources by dividing the worker caste into two groups that differ in physiology and lifespan: summer and winter bees. Most of the recent major losses of managed honey bee colonies occur during the winter, suggesting that winter bees may have compromised immune function and higher susceptibility to diseases. We tested this hypothesis by comparing the expression of eight immune genes and naturally occurring infection levels of deformed wing virus (DWV), one of the most widespread viruses in A. mellifera populations, between summer and winter bees. Possible interactions between immune response and physiological activity were tested by measuring the expression of vitellogenin and methyl farnesoate epoxidase, a gene coding for the last enzyme involved in juvenile hormone biosynthesis. Our data show that high DWV loads in winter bees correlate with reduced expression of genes involved in the cellular immune response and physiological activity and high expression of humoral immune genes involved in antibacterial defense compared with summer bees. This expression pattern could reflect evolutionary adaptations to resist bacterial pathogens and economize energy during the winter under a pathogen landscape with reduced risk of pathogenic viral infections. The outbreak of Varroa destructor infestation could have overcome these adaptations by promoting the transmission of viruses. Our results suggest that reduced cellular immune function during the winter may have increased honey bee’s susceptibility to DWV. These results contribute to our understanding of honey bee colony losses in temperate regions.