Abstract 1. Senescence in workers of social insects is a particularly intriguing life-history trait as the future fitness of workers relies primarily on age-dependent survival rate. The pattern of senescence of immune defence traits was investigated under laboratory conditions in workers of two bumble bees: Bombus terrestris and B. lucorum.
2. In both species, there was a significant decrease with age in the ability to encapsulate a foreign object (a global measure of the efficiency of immune systems). This pattern of senescence was observed in all colonies in B. terrestris (seven) and B. lucorum (eight) assayed, even though, for the latter, there was some heterogeneity among colonies.
3. In B. terrestris, two other measures of immune defence were taken: the relative percentage of fat body in the abdomen and the concentration of haemocytes (the immune defence cells). The quantity of fat body increased only slightly with age and there was no effect for the concentration of haemocytes. Interestingly, the concentration of haemocytes decreased strongly after an encapsulation response, regardless of the age of workers.
4. The importance of the senescence pattern observed for the immune defence traits is discussed in the context of the social biology of workers.