Honey bee pheromones: common scents
Once you fall in love with honey bees, it is easy to characterize them as intelligent, practical, even prescient. But in fact, honey bees do the things they do in response to pheromones.
A pheromone is a chemical or mixture of chemicals that is released by an individual and affects the behavior or physiology of another individual of the same species. So in the world of honey bees, a pheromone released by one bee affects the behavior and physiology of other bees.
Pheromones can be further divided into two distinct types called releaser pheromones and primer pheromones:
Releaser pheromones cause rapid changes in behavior. For example, alarm pheromone quickly engages other bees to help defend the nest.
Primer pheromones cause long-term changes in both physiology and behavior. Brood pheromone, for example, suppresses worker ovary development.
Pheromones are much more complicated than they first appear, and they have proven difficult to study and isolate. For example,
- Many pheromones can act as both releasers and primers
- The composition of pheromones as well as the response to pheromones depends on many factors including:
- Age of sender and receiver
- Genetics of sender and receiver
- Health of sender and receiver
- Environmental conditions
- Simultaneous exposure to other pheromones
Some examples of honey bee pheromones are listed below. Please realize these descriptions are greatly simplified and the common names for the pheromones can be confusing. For an in-depth discussion of these and other pheromones, see Neurobiology of Chemical Communication, Chapter 5: Chemical Communication in the Honey Bee Society by Laura Bortolotti and Cecilia Costa.
Examples of honey bee pheromones
(in alphabetical order by common name)
Alarm pheromone, produced by workers, is a releaser pheromone that calls nest mates to help defend the colony from intruders. A sting, which also releases alarm pheromone, causes other bees to sting as well.
Brood ester pheromone (BEP), produced by larvae, is a primer pheromone that, among other things, inhibits ovarian development in worker bees.
Drone pheromone is released by drones and allows them to find each other and form a drone congregation area (DCA).
Dufour’s gland pheromone is not clearly understood except that it has something to do with interactions between queens and workers, and between laying workers and non-laying workers. The composition of the pheromone changes as a worker evolves into a laying worker.
Egg marking pheromone allows worker bees to distinguish between queen-laid eggs and worker-laid eggs. At one time, scientists believed that the Dufour’s gland pheromone marked a queen’s eggs, but now egg-marking pheromone appears to be separate.
Fecal pheromone is produced by virgin queens. In-hive squabbles between virgin queens, or virgin queens and workers, are sometimes resolved when virgins squirt feces on the aggressive bees. Workers covered in the pheromone-laced feces back off in order to groom, and virgin queens covered in feces are ignored by the workers.
Footprint pheromone, also known as trail pheromone, is found in many social insects. Worker honey bees secrete the pheromone from their feet as they go about their daily business, and the odor is attractive to other honey bees. In theory, footprint pheromone is used for orientation and may aid the workers in finding the hive entrance or in locating a good food source, but the specifics are unclear.
Nasonov pheromone, sometimes called the “come hither” scent, is produced by worker bees to attract nest mates to the colony entrance, a clustering swarm, or a food source. If you move a hive a short distance from its original location, you can see workers exposing their Nasonov gland (it lies between the sixth and seventh abdominal segments) and fanning the scent into the air. Nasonov can also be used to attract swarms to nest boxes.
Tarsal pheromone is similar to footprint pheromone but it is secreted by the queen. The pheromone is deposited on the surface of the comb and is believed to delay or prevent queen cell construction.
Tergite pheromone is produced by all bees in the hive but the composition and amount varies with the type of bee. Virgin queen tergite pheromone is believed to be related to fighting among virgin queens.
Queen mandibular pheromone (QMP) plays many roles in the hive, including regulating social behavior, swarming, mating, and suppressing laying workers. Often known as “queen substance” the pheromone is spread throughout the hive by the worker bees, thereby alerting colony members that the hive is “queen-right” and operating normally.
Queen retinue pheromone (QRP) entices worker bees to groom and feed the queen, and causes a circle of attendants to surround and care for her.
Worker pheromone (Ethyl oleate) is a primer pheromone produced by foraging bees that slows the maturation of nurse bees into forager bees. It is believed this pheromone helps to maintain a proper balance of nurse bees to forager bees in the colony.
Honey Bee Suite