Insectes Sociaux

, Volume 56, Issue 2, pp 157–170 | Cite as

Smelling like resin: terpenoids account for species-specific cuticular profiles in Southeast-Asian stingless bees

  • S. D. Leonhardt
  • N. Blüthgen
  • T. SchmittEmail author
Research Article


Insects may be unique in having a cuticle with a species-specific chemical profile. In social insects, colony survival depends not only on species-specific but also on colony-specific cuticular compounds with hydrocarbons playing an important role in the communication systems of ants, termites, wasps and bees. We investigated inter- and intraspecific differences in the composition of compounds found on the body surface of seven paleotropical stingless bee species (Apidae: Meliponini) at two different sites in Borneo (Sabah, Malaysia). Besides hydrocarbons, the body surface of all seven stingless bee species comprised terpenoid compounds, a substance class that has not been reported for chemical profiles of any social insect so far. Moreover, the chemical profile of some species differed fundamentally in the composition of terpenoids with one group (e.g. sesquiterpenes) being present in one species, but missing in another. Chemical profiles of different colonies from the same species showed the same hydrocarbon- and terpenoid compounds over different regions, as tested for Tetragonilla collina and Tetragonula melanocephala. However, chemical profiles differed quantitatively between the different colonies especially in T. melanocephala. It is likely that the terpenoids are derived from plant resins because stingless bees are known to collect and use large amounts of resins for nest construction and defence, suggesting an environmental origin of the terpenoids in the chemical profile of paleotropical stingless bees.


Stingless bees Trigona Cuticular profiles Terpenoids Resins 



We thank the Royal Society as well as the staff from DVC and KSR for their support, and the Economic Planning Unit (EPU) for giving us permission to perform research in Malaysia. Chey Vun Khen and Arthur Chung (Forestry Research Centre, Sandakan) kindly supported this project. We further thank Dylan Burge for proof-reading the first draft of this manuscript and Gunnar Knobloch for help with data collection as well as Florian Menzel for help with the statistical analyses. The comments of two anonymous reviewers greatly improved this manuscript. SDL was supported by a grant of the German Excellence Initiative to the Graduate School of Life Science, University of Würzburg, NB and TS by the Sonderforschungsbereich ‘Mechanisms and Evolution of Arthropod Behaviour’ (SFB 554) of the German Research Foundation (DFG).


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© Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel/Switzerland 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical BiologyUniversity of WürzburgWürzburgGermany
  2. 2.Department of Evolutionary Biology and Animal EcologyUniversity of FreiburgFreiburgGermany

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