Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 59, Issue 1, pp 24–29 | Cite as

Role of esters in egg removal behaviour in honeybee (Apis mellifera) colonies

  • Stephen J. MartinEmail author
  • Nicolas Châline
  • Falko Drijfhout
  • Graeme R. Jones
Original Article


In queen-right honeybee colonies workers detect and eat the vast majority of worker-laid eggs, a behaviour known as worker policing. However, if a colony becomes permanently queen-less then up to 25% of the worker population develops their ovaries and lay eggs, which are normally reared into a final batch of males. Ovary development in workers is accompanied by changes in the chemical secretion of the Dufour's gland with the production of queen-like esters. We show that ester production increases with the period that the colony is queen-less. The increased ester production also corresponds to an increase in persistence of worker-laid eggs in queen-right colonies, since the esters somehow mask the eggs true identity. However, in a rare queen-less colony phenotype, workers always eat eggs indiscriminately. We found that the egg-laying workers in these colonies were unusual in that they were unable to produce esters. This apparently maladaptive egg eating behaviour is also seen in queen-less colonies prior to the appearance of egg-laying workers, a period when esters are also absent. However, the indiscriminate egg eating behaviour stops with the appearance of ester-producing egg-laying workers. These observations suggest that esters are providing some contextual information, which affects the egg eating behaviour of the workers.


Honeybee Esters Policing Apis mellifera Egg-eating 



This study was funded by an NERC standard grant (GR3/12816) and also supported by the European Community's Improving Human Potential Programme under contract HPRN-CT99/00052, INSECTS. The experiments comply with the current laws of the country where the study was carried out


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephen J. Martin
    • 1
    Email author
  • Nicolas Châline
    • 1
  • Falko Drijfhout
    • 2
  • Graeme R. Jones
    • 2
  1. 1.Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects, Department of Animal and Plant SciencesUniversity of SheffieldSheffieldUK
  2. 2.Chemical Ecology Group, School of Chemistry and Physics, Lennard-Jones LaboratoriesKeele UniversityKeeleUK

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