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The Queen Bee’s Allure
By Kate Dalke

The queen honeybee is irresistible to worker bees. Now we know why.

The queen, who produces the most complex pheromone known in the animal world, has at her command a cache of chemicals to make other bees do her bidding. She uses this powerful and seductive perfume to attract a retinue of worker bees that lick and groom her and carry chemical signals back to the rest of the hive.

Worker bees rub their antennae on the queen's abdomen, where some of the chemicals are released.

Four new chemicals in the pheromone have been identified, revealing that it is more complex than imagined. The four chemicals enhance a core group of five chemicals that had been previously identified.

“We were very surprised to find these four new chemicals,” says Christopher Keeling, who led the study at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. Together, these nine chemicals are called the queen retinue pheromone.

In the study, the researchers discovered that genetics plays a role in how bees respond to the pheromone. The scientists selectively bred bees that would respond to certain groups of chemicals in the pheromone.

The queen exudes these chemicals from a number of glands in different parts of the body such as the head and abdomen. It is rare for a pheromone associated with one behavior to come from several glands.

“Not only is the pheromone a blend of multiple chemicals, but the blend comes from different sources,” says Gene Robinson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has spearheaded the project to sequence the bee genome, now underway at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Robinson was not involved in the study.

Clockwise from top-left. 1. A retinue of workers surrounds their queen. 2. Queen's abdomen. 3. Bees lick and rub their antennae on a glass lure with a synthetic pheromone as if the lure was their own queen. 4. Petri dish and bees, with glass lure at 6'oclock.

For social insects like bees and ants, pheromones are the main form of communication. Bees have become models for studying social behavior in animals, including the genetics behind social traits.

To identify the new components, the researchers tested various chemicals on “a queen bee lure.” They coated a glass pipette with chemicals to mimic the queen bee’s perfume and waited to see whether the bees would come calling. The experiment was conducted 26,000 times with the lures.

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Keeling, C. et al. New components of the honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) queen retinue pheromone. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. Published online April 3, 2003.

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