The Many Scents of Honey Bees

Thursday 29 June 2023

There is a high level of connection between all honey bees in a hive. You may wonder how honey bees operate so efficiently together, and how they remain so united. The answer to that question can be explained with pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals which are secreted to the environment by an individual to be received by other individuals of the same species. There are a variety of important pheromones produced by both the workers and the queen that help the colony communicate and operate daily. Read this week’s blog to learn about some of the pheromones present in a honey bee hive, and how they alter honey bee behaviour.


The Many Scents of Honey Bees


Beekeepers should learn about the alarm pheromone which is produced by the workers as part of a defense strategy. The alarm pheromone is a highly effective signal for both alerting and recruiting other members of the hive when potential danger is sensed (Wang and Tan, 2019). Beekeepers are usually well acquainted with the alarm pheromone, along with its banana smell, as it is released to warn other bees of danger each time a honey bee stings. This is why beekeepers often get stung in the same spot several times. Disguising the pheromone with smoke will interfere with the alarm pheromone signal (Wang and Tan, 2019).


The Queen Mandibular Pheromone (QMP) is produced by the queen bee and has a variety of purposes in the hive. This pheromone inhibits ovary development in workers so that the queen is the only reproductive female in the colony. This pheromone stimulates workers to forage (Winston et al. 1991). The QMP also plays an important role in controlling hive congestion, as a low potency of the Queen Mandibular Pheromone may trigger a swarm. Workers distribute QMP by licking so all bees know a queen is present in the hive (Winston et al. 1991).


Honey bees attracted towards queen (ATTTA©2023)


Another pheromone produced by the queen is the Queen Retinue Pheromone, which attracts workers to clean, protect and feed the queen (Keeling et al. 2003). The Queen Retinue pheromone also attracts workers to the queen so they can distribute her pheromone messages to other workers throughout the colony. The synergistic, multiglandular, pheromone 

blend of at least nine compounds, that induces retinue attraction, is the most complex pheromone blend known for inducing a single behaviour in any organism (Keeling et al. 2003).


The final pheromone to be discussed in today’s blog is the Nasonov pheromone which is produced by the workers for orientation purposes. The pheromone is released by worker bees to orient returning forager bees back to the colony. The Nasonov pheromone is emitted by bees raising their abdomen, which contains the Nasanov gland, and fanning their wings vigorously. The secretion from the Nasonov gland of the worker honey bee comprises of 7 terpenoids, which show significant attraction to foragers only if all seven components are present together (Pickett et al. 1980; Williams et al. 1981).


Pheromones are crucial for communication in a bee hive. These secreted chemicals alter honey bee behaviour, and keep the colony healthy and productive. There are also other forms of communication in a honey bee colony, such as the distinct vibrations they make; and communicative dances they do to share information about resources around the hive. Continue reading our weekly blogs if you are interested in learning about other forms of communication honey bees use.

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Keeling, C., Slessor, K., Higo, H. and Winston, M. 2003. New components of the honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) queen retinue pheromone. PNAS. 100(8): 4486–4491.doi: 10.1073/pnas.0836984100
Pickett, J.A., Williams, I.H., Martin, A.P., and Smith, M.C. 1980. The Nasonov pheromone of the honey bee, Apis mellifera l. (Hymenoptera, Apidae). part I. Chemical characterization. J. Chem. Ecol. 6: 425–434.
Williams, I.H., Pickett, J.A., and Martin, A.P. 1981. Nasonov pheromone of the honey bee, Apis mellifera l. (Hymenoptera, Apidae). part II. Bioassay of chemical components with foragers. J. Chem. Ecol.
Winston, M. L., Higo, H. A., Colley, S. J., Pankiw, T., and Slessor, K. N. 1991. The role of queen mandibular pheromone and colony congestion in honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) reproductive swarming (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Journal of Insect Behavior. 4(5): 649–660. doi:10.1007/bf01048076 
Wang Z, Tan K. 2019. Honey bee alarm pheromone mediates communication in plant-pollinator-predator interactions. Insects. 10(10):366. doi:10.3390/insects10100366.