Honey Bee Pheromones...a unique communication system

The honey bee pheromones are the most fascinating thing about bees to me! Pheromones are just one specific part of their communication system, but they are unique in their usefulness to a colony of honey bees .

What are "Pheromones"?

The term "pheromone" was made up by a couple of men in 1959 to describe the effect of this chemical substance.

It came from a couple Greek words meaning "to carry" and "to excite".

This substance works as a messenger ("to carry") to other members of a colony, causing a reaction in other individual honey bees ("to excite").

These chemical substances are secreted by glands.

There are glands in adult bees as well as in pupae and larvae of honey bees.

In larvae and pupae, these glands act as governors for their development into mature adult bees.

Which glands produce pheromones?

There are several glands that produce honey bee pheromones...which they use to communicate with each other.

However, some of these glands do not appear to produce pheromones, but serve some other internal biological purpose.

For example, the salivary glands serve to convert complex sugars(nectar) into simple sugars (honey).

Others, like the hypophoraryngeal gland produces royal jelly to feed the larvae during their development.

The wax glands on the underside of the abdomen serve to secrete flakes of wax during times when nectar is plentiful.

However, there are THREE other glands that produce honey bee pheromones (chemical messengers).

  1. The Nasanov gland is located on the top of the abdomen closer to the stinger. This gland puts off an ATTRACTANT pheromone.
  2. The Mandibular gland is located near the mouth and puts off the first stage of an ALARM pheromone.
  3. The second stage of the ALARM pheromone comes from the sting gland

Two Main Types

1)  The ATTRACTANT PHEROMONE in worker bees is produced by a gland in their abdomen (Nasanov gland).

This pheromone is used to attract members of the colony who might have lost the location of the colony.

Many times, when catching a swarm, bees can be observed extending their abdomen down and fanning with their wings to propel the airborne scent to the bees flying around (trying to locate the rest of the colony).

2) ALARM PHEROMONES are produced by two separate glands.

The first originates in the mandibular gland.  When guard bees are alarmed by an intruder, they put off this alarm scent that tells the other bees that there might be a problem. This scent is especially prone to be released when the problem is a MOVING intruder.

This is why it is important to make slow movements around a beehive so that you don't alarm the guard bees.

The Mandibular gland is located near the mouth of the honey bee and is the first line of defensive communication if a colony is facing a threat.

This gland puts off the first stage of an ALARM pheromone.

The second stage of the ALARM pheromone comes from the sting gland.

This chemical messenger is released after the stinger has penetrated the skin of the intruder.  It is not released until the sting, and is much stronger than the scent given off by the mandibular gland.

After the sting takes place, and the stinger (with poison sac and all) is ripped out of the abdomen of the bee, the alarm scent is at its strongest.

As a matter of fact, the scent is now all over the surface of the exact spot where the sting took place and functions as a "bulls-eye" for the other guard bees to attack.

Other pheromones (NOT MENTIONED IN DETAIL HERE) are used to mark the entrance to the hive, to mark flowers where THE BEES have been foraging, and to alert nurse bees when a baby bee needs food.

How do bees receive chemical messages?

The antennae and mouthparts are equipped with sensory receptors which interpret the odors and bring about an excitement within a hive.

There is ONE more pheromone which only ONE honey bee has the capability to produce. It is sometimes called a "queen substance", and evokes a sense of well-being and calm within a colony.

A queen-less colony can sometimes be determined merely by listening to the bees. If the buzz is at a frenzied pitch, the colony might be queen-less or it might be defending against some harassment.

Honey bee pheromones are part of a fascinating communication system within a colony.

Next time you're near a hive of bees, watch for bees standing on the hive, fanning their wings with the tip of their abdomen pointed down. Now you know that they are sending a signal to attract their fellow colonists back home.

Neat huh?

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