In insect pathogen interactions, host developmental stage is among several factors that influence the induction of immune responses. Here, we show that the effectiveness of immune reactions to a pathogen can vary markedly within a single larval stage. Pre-wandering fifth-stage (day 5) larvae of the model lepidopteran insect Manduca sexta succumb faster to infection by the insect pathogenic bacterium Photorhabdus luminescens than newly ecdysed fifth-stage (day 0) caterpillars. The decrease in insect survival of the older larvae is associated with a reduction in both humoral and cellular defence reactions compared to less developed larvae. We present evidence that older fifth-stage larvae are less able to over-transcribe microbial pattern recognition protein and antibacterial effector genes in the fat body and hemocytes. Additionally, older larvae show reduced levels of phenoloxidase (PO) activity in the cell-free hemolymph plasma as well as a dramatic decrease in the number of circulating hemocytes, reduced ability to phagocytose bacteria and fewer melanotic nodules in the infected tissues. The decline in overall immune function of older fifth-stage larvae is reflected by higher bacterial growth in the hemolymph and increased colonization of Photorhabdus on the basal surface of the insect gut. We suggest that developmentally programmed variation in immune competence may have important implications for studies of ecological immunity. (c) 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.