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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 tergites) 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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Retinue formation Pixabay
Queen retinue formation is one of many honey bee behaviors controlled by pheromones. Pixabay photo.

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Comments

AramF
Reply

Rusty,

Do you have any insight where the QMP is located. I am just wandering if it is really necessary to save the whole queen or just her head to make the swarm attractant “potion”?

Rusty
Reply

Aram,

The gland diagrams I have, and the texts regarding QMP, put everything in the head of the queen. That said, you must have a serious storage issue if you have room for only the head and not the rest of her!

Militoy
Reply

Rusty,
I am curious if there are descriptions of the scents of the various pheromones beyond “banana” for the alarm pheromone, and “lemon grass” for Nasonov pheromone. Are the others discernable by the human sense of smell?

Rusty
Reply

That’s a good question. For many of the pheromones, the chemical structures have been worked out, but whether humans can smell them, I have no idea.

Anna
Reply

I noticed something interesting when I was clearing off the fronts of the hives after our blizzard: I caught a whiff of a very familiar smell. Only after clearing the front of the 4th hive did I realize I was smelling alarm pheromone. They were emitting it as they heard/felt me touching their hives while they remained in their clusters…fascinating. No one came out to investigate (it was 20 degrees) but they made it clear that they were not happy with me!

AramF
Reply

There is always a fear of coming of sounding ridiculous when asking a trivial question, so to clarify… I actually do have somewhat of a constraint with storage. I wanted to make swarm attractant, kind of like Mann Lake makes and inside the plastic vial, it would be a lot easier to put a head with some EO and alcohol than to put in the whole queen. She might fit, but she’d take a lot of space I’d rather replace with other ingredients. Thanks for the feedback.

Rusty
Reply

Aram,

You know I was teasing you, right? Of course heads are the way to go!

Muzafar
Reply

Hello sir. I am new to beekeeping. I have a single hive. I want to know how to extract honey without extractor without destroying comb.

Rusty
Reply

Muzafar,

I don’t know of any way to do that.

Muzafar
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you I have one more question. Do honey bees consume pollen only if nectar is not available, and if available do they consume only nectar or mixture? And if I supply sugar syrup to them, do they store it and cap it?

Rusty
Reply

Muzafar,

Pollen provides lipids and protein; nectar provides carbohydrates. Pollen is mixed with nectar and stored in the comb. This mixture is eaten by nurse bees which allows them to secrete royal jelly, which is fed to young larvae and queens. All young adult bees eat some amount of pollen, but as they mature and become foragers, they eat only nectar.

Yes, sugar syrup that is not needed for immediate feeding is stored and capped.

Carol
Reply

The weather on Vancouver Island is wet and we just opened a hive that had a honey super on top for winter feeding. The honey frames a coated with mold an we are wondering if the honey can be saved if we dry and clean the mold off? Would capped honey be protected by the bees wax? The hive was so wet that we have lost the whole thing. Can we save the honey? Carol

Rusty
Reply

Carol,

You may be able to clean some of the mold off, but I think the honey might pick up a moldy taste. Why not just save those frames of honey for your next colony? Your bees will clean up the mold in no time.

Muzafar
Reply

Thanks rusty
I want to know, to get more honey is it better to make one big hive or two small hives
of 10 frame.

Rusty
Reply

Muzafar,

One big colony will make more honey than two small ones.

Yaz Selvage
Reply

Hi Rusty,
I have a medical marijuana farm and started beekeeping last year. This year I want to produce cannahoney using female plants. Do you have knowledge of the correct pheromone to employ? Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Since Cannabis is a wind-pollinated plant, it has no need to attract pollinators and so it does not produce any appreciable amounts of nectar. Honey bees do visit the plant to collect pollen, however. Cannahoney, as I understand it, is produced my tricking honey bees into consuming resinous materials from the Cannabis foliage and making a honey-like product from it. But honey, by definition, is made from the nectar of flowers, so this product is not honey. I have no idea what pheromone to use.

Rusty
Reply

The information comes from The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015), Chapter 11 “Honey Bee Pheromones” by Christina Grozinger. In the section on fecal pheromones she cites Page et al. 1988; Post et al. 1987; and Breed et al. 1992.

Barrie
Reply

Rusty,

1. I was stung by a bee, how long will the pheromone be active in/on me? > 24 hours & I’m still attracting bees.

2. I need to get rid of these bees, they’re in a “natural conservancy” next to my horse pasture & I’ve noticed the horses will not go to the back of the pasture, I assume it is due to my new visitors!

Rusty
Reply

Barrie,

I’m wondering if something else is attracting the bees. Normally, a little soap and water at the sting site will get rid of residual pheromone. It could be something else, like a fragrance in soap or shampoo that is attracting them to you.

How you get rid of bees depends on what kind they are and where they are nesting. Do you know for a fact they are honey bees? Could they be some other species?

phoncie
Reply

Am new and so far I have learned a lot but am still lost on the information about the Dufour gland.

Dave Belcourt
Reply

Been reading about honey bee behavior. Does the information apply to to the Africanized bees we have in southern Arizona?

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

For the most part, yes. After all, they are the same genus and species. Apis mellifera. But they do have differences, just as we see in their behavior. How much is different and how much is the same, I don’t know.

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