Do Bumble Bees Produce Brood Pheromones?

Abstract

Reproductive division of labor, a defining feature of social insects, is often regulated by a combination of behavioral and chemical means. It is hypothesized that behavioral interactions play a more important role in regulating reproduction of primitive eusocial species, while pheromones are typically used by large sized, advanced eusocial species. Here we examined if worker reproduction in the primitively eusocial species Bombus impatiens is regulated by brood pheromones. We recently demonstrated that worker egg laying in this species is inhibited by young larvae and triggered by pupae. However, the mechanism by which the brood communicates its presence and whether brood or hunger pheromones are involved remain unknown. We found that workers were behaviorally attracted to pupae over larvae or control in a choice experiment, in line with their reproductive interests. However, odors from larvae or pupae were insufficient to inhibit worker reproduction. We further show that the youngest larvae are particularly vulnerable to starvation, however, despite a slight attraction and fewer eggs laid by workers in the presence of starved compared with fed larvae, these effects were insignificant. Our study demonstrates that workers can differentiate between larvae and pupae, but not between starved and fed larvae based on olfactory information. However, these signals alone do not explain the reduction in worker egg laying previously found. Bumble bee workers may use information from multiple sources or rely solely on behavioral interactions with brood and other females to make decisions about reproduction, in line with their small colony size and simple social organization.

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Correspondence to Etya Amsalem.

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Starkey, J., Derstine, N. & Amsalem, E. Do Bumble Bees Produce Brood Pheromones?. J Chem Ecol 45, 725–734 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10886-019-01101-4

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Keywords

  • Reproduction
  • Pheromones
  • Bumblebees
  • Brood
  • Eusociality