Cooperative Disease Defenses in Insect Societies

Sylvia Cremer is an Evolutionary Biologist interested in behavioral ecology and evolutionary immunology in ant societies. With her team, she studies individual and collective anti-pathogen defenses of ants, by a combination of behavioral observations, physiological and molecular measures of immunity, and chemical analyses.

Colonies of social insects, like other societies, face the problem of a high risk of disease transmission among the group members. This is primarily due to close interactions and high within colony densities. Despite this risk, epidemics occur extremely rarely in the colonies of social insects (e.g. bees, ants, termites), as they have evolved collective anti-pathogen defenses that complement the individual immune systems of group members. This "social immunity" comprises a) hygiene behaviors, such as mutual allogrooming, b) joint physiological defenses, as the production and application of antimicrobial substances and c) the modulation of interaction types and frequencies upon exposure of group members to pathogens.

The Cremer group studies all aspects of social immune defenses in ants to learn more about disease management and epidemiology in societies.

Sylvia Cremer
Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria)
Am Campus 1
A – 3400 Klosterneuburg

Phone: +43 (0)2243 9000-3401

CV & publication list

Cremer Group website

Agnieszka Rowinska

Phone: +43 (0)2243 9000-1148



PhD Students



We organize the Central European Meeting of the IUSSI and a Social Immunity Workshop at IST Austria 19-22.3.2019. For details please see IUSSI 2019.

Current Projects

  • Social vaccination
    When individual ants get sick, their nestmates take care of them. We found that these helpers do not necessarily run the risk of contracting the disease themselves, but can even receive an immune protection by “social vaccination”. We currently try to understand both the molecular mechanisms and the effects for the society structure of this social vaccination.
  • Pathogen detection abilities
    Ants show the amazing feature of being able to detect the presence of pathogens in their colonies even before these could implement 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.
  • Experience in hygienic tasks
    Ants often specialize on specific tasks within the colony given their age, genetic thresholds, or experience. We test if experience also plays a role in the performance level and the efficiency of hygienic tasks, especially hygienic brood care.
  • Epidemiology
    Disease spread occurs along routes of high numbers of interactions and can thus be modeled 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 combining experimental work and theoretical modeling is used to gain insight into disease spread in societies.

Third Party funding for these projects e.g. ERC Starting Grant, German Research Foundation DFG, WWTF (Vienna Science and Technology Fund).

Since 2015 Professor, IST Austria
2010-2015 Assistant Professor, IST Austria      
2006-2010 Group Leader / Habilitation, University of Regensburg, Germany
2006 Junior Fellow, Institute of Advanced Studies, Berlin, Germany
2002-2006 Postdoc, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
1998-2002 Dr. rer. nat. (PhD), University of Regensburg, Germany

Selected Distinctions

2017 ERC Consolidator Grant
2015 Elisabeth Lutz Prize of the Austruan Academy of Sciences
2013 Walther Arndt Prize of the German Zoological Society
2013 Co-PI WWTF Life Sciences Grant New Ventures Beyond Established Frontiers
2012 Research Award Lower Austria: Anerkennungspreis des Landes Niederösterreich
2011 Elected member of  "Junge Kurie" (Young Academy) of Austrian Acadamy of Sciences (ÖAW)
2009 ERC Starting Grant
2008 Elected member of "Junge Akademie" (Young Academy) of German National Academy of Sciences Leoplodina and Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (BBAW)
2004-2006 Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship & Reintegration Grant
2003-2004 Feodor Lynen Fellowship, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation

Selected Publications

Research Papers

  • Pull CD, Metzler S, Naderlinger EN & Cremer S (2018) Protection against the lethal side effects of social immunity in ants. Current Biology doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.08.063
  • Konrad M, Pull CD, Seif K, Metzler S, Grasse AV & Cremer S (2018) Ants avoid superinfections by performing risk-adjusted sanitary care. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1713501115
  • Pull CD, Ugelvig LV, Wiesenhofer F, Tragust S, Schmitt T, Brown MJF & Cremer S (2018) Destructive disinfection of infected brood prevents systemic disease spread in ant colonies. elife 7:e32073 doi: 10.7554/eLife.32073
  • Tragust S, Ugelvig LV, Chapuisat M, Heinze J & Cremer S (2013) Pupal cocoons affect sanitary brood care and limit fungal infections in ant colonies. BMC Evolutionary Biology 13: 225. doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-13-225
  • Konrad M, Vyleta ML, Theis FJ, Tragust S, Stock M, Klatt M, Drescher V, Marr C, Ugelvig LV & Cremer S (2012) Social transfer of pathogenic fungus promotes active immunisation in ant colonies. PLoS Biology 10(4): e1001300. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001300

Selected Reviews

  • Cremer S, Pull CD & Fürst MA (2018) Social immunity: emergence and evolution of colony-level disease protection. Annual Reviews of Entomology 63:105-23 doi: 10.1146/annurev-ento-020117-043110
  • Cremer S & Sixt M (2009) Analogies in the evolution of individual and social immunity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 364: 129-142. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0166
  • Cremer S, Armitage SAO & Schmid-Hempel P (2007) Social immunity. Current Biology 17: 693-702. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.06.008

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