The Power of Bee Pheromones
Recently, we have been been looking into the many unique and unusual ways that bees communicate. We looked into the important dorso-ventral abdominal vibration (DVAV) signal, which tells bees to “wake up” as their workload is about to increase. We examined a number of specific dances that help bees communicate the location and type of food available to other workers in the hive. Now, we are going to look at how a release of chemicals from the bees’ body is a third and vital communication method.
When we think of pheromones, it’s likely that we think of an unexplainable attraction to someone based on their scent. Perhaps you remember a time when, for some unknown reason, you just couldn’t keep your hands off someone, and the smell of them drove you wild! Well yes, pheromones are chemicals emitted by animals, especially mammals or insects, that affect the behavior or physiology of others in its species. Potent stuff!
Now, these chemicals have been said to be THE most important and powerful communication mechanism of the bee, as they can inform others about events, the status of the animal’s health and much more. And even though other animals have this capacity, bees actually have one of the most sophisticated pheromone-driven communication systems on the planet!
Just as pheromones might have attracted you to someone, they might have also repelled you. There is more to these chemicals than meets the eye, and they help animals make decision for their everyday lives in relation to reproduction, survival, and boundaries: perhaps we can think of them as the traffic lights of the biological world! In bees, the messages sent this way can be minor or dramatic; they can change the path of a single insect, or dictate the fate of a colony. Reproduction, the development of brood, foraging, defense, and mating are all governed by pheromones.
Simply, bees (like many other animals) use two different types of pheromones. The first are primer pheromones: these prompt a complex reaction in the receiver, and create changes that are both behavioural and developmental. An example includes brood-produced primer pheromones, which can prevent worker ovary development, as well as stimulate cell capping by adult workers. The second and more common type are releaser pheromones. These have a weaker, short-term effect, generating a more simplistic response in the receiver only at the behavioral level. For example, the egg-marking pheromone assists nurse bees distinguish between eggs laid by the queen bee and eggs laid by a laying worker. Fascinating stuff!