Honey Bee Pheromones

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In the world of honey bees, communication is achieved in many different ways. This is essential, otherwise – how would a family with thousands of individual members get anything done? Through the sophisticated language of honey bee pheromones harmonious functioning of the hive is possible. These chemical signals serve as silent messengers to convey vital information.

Worker honey bee on comb with contact pheromones.

Life inside a beehive reveals some miraculous facts about bees. And, as we explore the various types of bee pheromones at work – these tiny pollinators seem even more amazing.

What are Honey Bee Pheromones?

What is a pheromone? It is a chemical substance that is secreted externally and causes certain behaviors or responses in members of the same species.

Honey bees produce pheromones much like we humans produce sweat. But, instead of a liquid to cool the body, their pheromones serve to relay information about colony status.

The bee colony still holds some mysteries that we don’t understand. But, some of these chemical messengers have been identified. 

And, as we explore the different types of honey bee pheromones and their roles within the colony, we gain valuable insights into the remarkable world of communication that exists within a bee hive.

Dark queen honey bee surrounded by retinue of workers.

Types of Bee Pheromones

Within the confines of colony life, we know of several different types of bee pheromones and the behaviors they control. Of course, that certainly does not mean that there are not more that we have yet to learn about.

Each type of bee in the hive is known to affect daily life with some type of pheromonal signals.

  • queens
  • workers
  • drones

Queen Pheromones – Hive Organization

Because of her importance to the colony, much research has been done on the queen bee. As the only hive member capable of laying fertilized bee eggs, the colony work force depends on her.

Some of her pheromones help identify her as “the queen” or her royal signature. This is a signal to the colony that all is well and daily life inside the hive continues.

With a good laying queen on the job and plenty of fresh brood, they have no reason to build new queen cells.

The queen bee’s pheromones inhibit the development of worker ovaries. This suppresses a situation known as laying workers – which can disturb the balance of the hive.

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Queen Substance

One of the most important pheromone components in the colony is spread by contact – “queen substance”. It is a combination of at least 3 substances synthesized in the mandibular glands (located in mouth) of the queen.

  • 9-oxo-2-decenoci acid (9-ODA)
  • 9-hydroxy-2-decenoic acid (9-HDA)
  • 10-hydroxy-2-decenoic acid (10-HDA)

HDA & ODA stimulate brood rearing. Their presence tells the workers that they should prepare for raising more young. The queen will only lay eggs in cells that have been cleaned and polished by workers. 

The presence of good queen substance pheromones tells the workers it is time to get to work preparing cells.

They also help maintain the “queen retinue”. This refers to the small group of workers that you often see surround the queen. They follow her around the comb to feed and groom her.

Colony bees will kill a failing queen and attempt to replace her when her pheromone levels drop low. Survival of the colony is the number one priority.

Worker bees guard entrance for colony members using pheromones to check arrivals.

Worker Pheromones & Task Allocation

Most of the members of a colony are female worker bees. produce them as well. These diligent bees collect resources needed by the colony, perform numerous tasks inside the hive and serve as guard bees for defense.

  • task related
  • alarm pheromones

One pheromone response that any beekeeper can observe takes place at the nasonov gland. This is the scenting gland located near the tip of the worker’s abdomen. These gland secretions produce geraniol and citral – this is a “calling substance”. 

Bees can be seen doing this at the entrance of the nest, on the surface of a swarm or any time you move them to a new spot.

Another worker pheromone is “isopentyl acetate” that is produced near the stinger. An alarm-danger signal, it calls other members of the colony to come and help defend the hive. 

Honey bees are not the only insects with alarm pheromones.  Yellow Jackets do the same thing when stinging.  This is why is it so important to move away before their sisters arrive to sting you too.

Drone honey bee and a drone in the hive drinking honey from comb.

Drone Pheromones & Reproductive Behavior

Male colony members are called drones. Their primary role in colony life is mating with new queens. Drone bees also produce pheromones and react to those produced by other bees.

The drone-produced pheromones involved in bee reproduction helps attract queens to drone congregation areas. This is where mating takes place.

Bee colony communication with nurse bees and brood.

Brood Pheromones Control Workers

Adults are not the only members of the colony that produce chemicals to control behavior. The youngest members of the colony produce them too – brood pheromones.

Bee larvae are eating machines – their only occupation is to eat and grow.  Adult nurse bees have to task of providing food – which they do constantly 24/7 until the cell is capped.

An abundance of brood pheromones encourages foraging bees to collect more pollen. It will be needed to feed these developing bees. It also encourages the development of the hypopharyngeal glands in the nurse bees to produce more brood food.

Brood pheromones are produced on the surface of the larval skin (cuticle). In addition to possibly inhibiting ovary development in workers – like queen substance – they cause other actions.

Enemies of the colony also make use of brood pheromones. Varroa mites are able to locate brood (especially the preferred drone brood) by these chemicals messengers.

Significance for Beekeepers

So, what do all these big words mean to the average backyard beekeeper? It is not so important that you remember their names or how to spell them. But, you do need to understand that there are things affecting our bees that we don’t see.

The presence of queen pheromones are why a beekeeper can not usually requeen a hive without an introduction period. The new queen doesn’t “smell” right.

A queen bee with failing pheromones levels is a danger to the colony. The workers will likely replace her in due time. Is that why the bees are building queen cells or are they about to swarm? 

Same situation for foragers returning to the hive – are those bees at the entrance fighting or just checking? Worker approaching the entrance may be inspected to insure they are not a robber bees.

Some activities such as washboarding bees are a mystery but we continue to learn more and more. Aren’t bees wonderful!

FAQs

How do honey bee pheromones affect colony communication?

Pheromones act as a silent language, allowing bees to convey information about reproductive status, hive health, and specific tasks.

What types of pheromones do honey bees produce?

Honey bees produce various pheromones, including those emitted by queens, workers, and drones. Each type of pheromone serves specific functions in regulating hive activities.

Can beekeepers benefit from understanding honey bee pheromones?

Beekeepers who grasp the nuances of honey bee pheromones can enhance hive management, anticipate behavioral changes, and address issues such as queen succession, ultimately promoting the well-being of their colonies.

Final Thoughts

We have looked at only a few of many honey bee pheromones, yet it is easy to understand why they are so important. Their presence or absence allows workers to understand much about the condition of the colony. This is done quickly without having to tell each one of your 20,000 – 60,000 sisters.

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