The World of Insect Pheromones
In the world of the honeybee there is room for only one queen. And grand she is. Presiding over a kingdom that can hold as many as sixty thousand subjects, the queen uses her pheromones to control the...
In the world of the honeybee there is room for only one queen. And grand she is. Presiding over a kingdom that can hold as many as sixty thousand subjects, the queen uses her pheromones to control the drones (males) and the workers (infertile females). As the only fertile female of the lot, the queen has quite a job description, for she must keep the hive full of bees. She mates and lays her eggs in the cells of the hive. A prolific reproducer, she can lay a staggering fifteen hundred eggs per day.
The queen’s absolute power is made possible by her special “primer” pheromones, which only she produces. Primer pheromones are more complex than ordinary pheromones that serve to attract a mate, and their effects have a broader scope. The queen uses them to force her drones to mate with her and to prevent them from going off and finding a new queen. Learn more at http://astrobiosociety.org
Her pheromones tell the rest of the hive that business is proceeding as usual or when danger is in the air. Primer pheromones motivate the lower-ranking bees to take care of the queen's offspring, and they inhibit the sexual maturation of the female worker bees so that the queen is the only one who can reproduce. The queen's pheromones are so powerful that the workers will slack off in their absence. When the worker bees are no longer able to detect the queen’s pheromones (as often happens when she gets old), they will assume it is time to prepare for a new ruler and will start constructing special “queen cells” in which the up-and-coming royal highness will be prepped for her duties.
A deceased honeybee broadcasts its misfortune by emitting a “death” pheromone called oleic acid that instructs the other bees in the hive to remove its carcass. So powerful is oleic acid that a live bee smudged with the pheromone will find itself an un- willing participant in its own funeral and subsequent removal from the hive. Even the untouchable queen, if doused with the pheromone, would face the same indignity.
Pheromones also serve, to protect the bees’ living space. When a beehive is threatened by an intruder, the bees will collectively release a pheromone that incites all of them to attack and sting the unwelcome visitor.
Wasps use pheromones to single out members of their own colonies, and wasps are kinder to their families than they are to strangers. For example, scientists have found that wasps whose colonies are opened to strangers will act with the most civility toward the wasps with recognizable “family” pheromones.
The Marvels of Ants
To say pheromones direct the lives of the estimated 8,800 species of ants that roam the globe is an understatement. Rather, pheromones dictate exactly what each and every member of an ant colony will do, how it will behave, and when. Pheromones tell ants when to search for food, if the colony is being invaded, and when another ant has died. Ants have twenty—five glands in their bodies that all together produce two dozen different pheromones.
In the world of the ant, pheromones are like molecular stand at attention orders that each member of the family is genetically hard-wired to follow. To an ant, not responding appropriately to a pheromonal signal would seem as foreign as not raiding an open picnic basket.
Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University, who pioneered studies into chemical communication among ants, holds the exotic title of myrmecologist, which is a biologist who specializes in the study of ants. One of Wilson’s most significant findings is that certain ants are capable of laying distinct pheromone “smelling” trails that tell the others where food has been found. The others can read the instructions provided in the trail and then follow it to the food.
Despite the ant’s pheromone mastery, its code can be broken by some invertebrates that can unscramble the messages and edit them to their advantage. Assassin bugs, for example, are brilliant decoders.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Alexander is a blogger who studies pheromones.