Social immunisation

When individual ants get sick, their nestmates take care of them. We found that these helpers do not necessarily run an elevated risk of contracting the disease, but can in fact receive an immune protection by “social immunisation”. We currently try to understand both the molecular mechanisms and the effects for the society structure of this social immunisation. 

Pathogen detection abilities

Ants show the amazing feature of being able to detect the presence of pathogens in their colonies even before these have established an infection. We study the pathogen detection abilities of ants and determine how these are affected by reduction in the genetic diversity of colonies by e.g. inbreeding effects.

Host-parasite coevolution

Parasites and pathogens can quickly adapt to their hosts, which – on the other hand – develop better defence strategies. We are interested in the dynamics of these coevolutionary arms races in social hosts such as ants.


Disease spread occurs along routes of high numbers of interactions and can thus be modelled by e.g. traffic networks. We use the social interaction networks of ants to both apply and further develop epidemiological models of disease spread. This joint approach, which combines experimental work and theoretical modelling, is used to gain insight into disease spread in societies.

Sanitary brood care in ants

We study how the workers handle diseased brood in the colony. We have previously shown (Ugelvig et al. 2010) that ants, similar to honeybees, show 'hygienic behaviour' during which they remove pathogen-exposed and sick brood from the nest. On the other hand, workers also intensively groom the brood to remove infectious particles. We analyse this care-kill dichotomy in sanitary brood care and the effects on disease spread and colony-level epidemiology.


Intraorganismal pathogens

Diesease transmission can take various routes. One of the major routes are oral infections, where infective disease propagules are being ingested. Bacterial infections may colonize the digestive tract, whilst the obligatory intracellular viruses may go systemic to develop their virulence. Intraorganismal pathogens pose a different challenge to disease detection and prevention in a colony. We are therefore interessted in how ant colonies deal with infections of Bacillus thuringensis as well as viral infections after oral infection.