The Role of Pheromones

Photo by Pim Lemmers

Have you ever wondered how a queen bee manages to organize her colony? The answer is queen pheromones, the most advanced form of communication in social insects. Pheromones are chemical substances bees secrete from their exocrine glands. When released into the environment they change the behavior and physiology of fellow bees.

They play a crucial role in honey bee colonies because they facilitate communication among different castes. This includes communication between queen-workers, workers-workers, queen-drones, as well as with the brood. By emitting and sensing these chemical substances, bees can regulate the behavior and development of their colony. It helps them to work together effectively and maintain colony health and productivity.

Pheromones are typically directed towards members of the same colony. However, there are a few exceptions where they may target others. The broad range of activities that pheromones influence within the colony include development, reproduction, foraging, defense, and overall integration.

Introduction to Bee Pheromones

Bees communicate and coordinate their activities within the colony using chemical signals called bee pheromones. They produce these signals in various glands in their bodies (see diagram).

Once released into the air or onto surfaces, the pheromone is detected by other bees. By using pheromones, bees can efficiently organize and carry out their tasks. Understanding the functions of these chemical signals provides valuable insights into the behavior and biology of bees.


Honey bees have two types of pheromones: primer and releaser pheromones. Primer pheromones evoke complex and long-lasting physiological responses in the receiver. They act at a deeper level, which leads to developmental and behavioral changes. In contrast, releaser pheromones have a weaker effect. They operate at a surface level, and evoke only temporary and simple behavioral responses in the receiver.

Pheromones are categorized according to their function. These include sexual attraction, gathering, dispersal, alarm, aggregation, trail, recruitment, territorial and recognition. Social insects utilize primer pheromones to maintain harmony and stability within the colony.

In honey bees, the queen and brood mainly release primer pheromones, worker bees generally emit releaser pheromones. The development of primer pheromones is critical to social insects as these signals play a vital role in their social structure and homeostasis.

How do Bees detect Pheromones?

Queen, drone, worker bees, and laying worker bees secrete chemical messengers that trigger specific responses in other bees. These messengers take on the form of volatile or non-volatile liquids and are transmitted either through direct contact as a liquid or as vapor. The bee’s antenna and body parts are responsible for receiving these chemical messages.

These messengers contain an array of unique chemicals that play different roles. For example, queen bees emit a pheromone that prevents worker bees from laying eggs, ensuring their reproductive dominance. They also secrete a pheromone that helps attract drones for mating purposes. On the other hand, worker bees produce a chemical that signals to others that a particular task needs to be completed.


Photo by Pim Lemmers

Bees use their antennae to detect pheromones through a series of sensory structures called sensilla. These structures contain nerve cells that are stimulated when a pheromone molecule binds to specific receptor sites. The antennae of bees are covered in thousands of these sensilla, allowing them to detect even very low concentrations of pheromones.

The exact mechanisms by which this process works are still not fully understood, but it is believed that the shape and electrical charge of the pheromone molecules play a critical role in their detection. Once a pheromone is detected, the bee’s behavior and physiological responses are altered in specific ways that help the colony function more effectively, such as by signaling the presence of a queen, or the need for more workers.


Photo by Pim Lemmers

Bees use not only their antennae but also other parts of their body to detect pheromones. The incoming pheromone molecules, such as queen mandibular pheromones (QMPs), bind to specific receptor cells in the bee’s antenna, as well as on their mouthparts, legs, wings, and even the reproductive organs.

Once the pheromone molecules are detected, they activate sensory neurons and trigger nerve impulses, which are then transmitted to the bee’s brain. This process prompts a range of behavioral changes in the bee, including foraging, feeding, brood rearing, and mating.

Can Bees detect Human Scent?

When fear arises in humans or animals, their bodies release fear pheromones, which can be detected by bees. The bees that detect these pheromones immediately communicate the threat to their nearby hive mates. In response, the hive instinctively defends its territory to maintain the safety and security of its community.

This chemical communication between bees is just one example of the remarkable social and survival mechanisms that exist within this highly organized insect society.

How to Use Pheromones for Beekeeping Success

Beekeepers can use pheromones to their advantage by using synthetic versions to manipulate bee behavior. For example, queen mandibular pheromone can be used to suppress the development of worker bees’ ovaries, which can prevent them from laying eggs and disrupting the hive’s social structure. Additionally, alarm pheromones can be used to deter predators or pests from approaching the hive. By understanding the different types of bee worker pheromones and their functions, beekeepers can improve hive health and productivity.



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