Honeybee Pheromones

By Ol’ Drone

Honeybees communicate by issuing strong smelling chemical compounds called pheromones. These fragrances direct specific behaviors and their uses are important in the normal function of a healthy honeybee colony. There are dozens of types of pheromones which are produced by queens, workers, brood larva, drones, and even guard bees when they sting. The stinger that is left in your skin gives off a scent that attracts other stinging bees to guide them to, follow, and continue to harass the victim (or predator). One important scent called the “queen mandibular pheromone” (QMP) is generated by the queen and it is constantly distributed throughout the entire colony by nurse bees who stroke and lick the queen. Other worker bees transfer the scent to all the thousands of hive bees and this sends a signal that “all is well” in the colony and that a healthy, productive queen is properly functioning in the hive. The QMP also sends a signal to the workers that inhibits their ovaries from developing as long as the “one and only” queen is presently performing the egg-laying in the hive.

If the queen dies suddenly, the bees can produce a new queen by creating a new queen cell built around a just hatched larva. If no young larvae are available, the lack of QMP to distribute throughout the colony will trigger development of the ovaries in several ordinary worker bees who will now lay only unfertilized drone eggs. This action by the laying workers will result in loss of the colony. Substitute QMP has been synthesized and is available to use to temporarily act as if there is a queen present. This continues to inhibit laying workers while a new queen is ordered and installed.

Another scent called the Nasonov pheromone is produced by the workers. This scent is obvious whenever a hive is opened for inspection. Bees will be observed with their abdomens raised and with wings fanning a breeze to distribute the scent. This is an alarm pheromone alerting the colony that there is a threat and preparing them for defense. The faint fragrance of lemons can be detected in the air and the bees can easily be calmed down by a few whiffs of smoke from the smoker. Bees often use this same scent at the hive entrance to help guide their family bees back to their home. This pheromone is also available as a synthesized compound and is valuable to attract swarming bees to a “catcher hive” box. Beekeepers often set up empty catcher hive boxes nearby the bee yard hoping to attract a wild swarm or one from their own managed hives.

Honeybees communicate continuously through the use of these amazing pheromones and research is still uncovering the secrets of their usage.

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