Melanic variation underlies aposematic color variation in two hymenopteran mimicry systems

Heather M. Hines, Paige Witkowski, Joseph S. Wilson, Kazumasa Wakamatsu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


The stinging hymenopteran velvet ants (Mutillidae) and bumble bees (Apidae: Bombus spp.) have both undergone extensive diversification in aposematic color patterns, including yellow-red hues and contrasting dark-light body coloration, as a result of Müllerian mimicry. Understanding the genetic and developmental mechanisms underlying shifts in these mimetic colors requires characterization of their pigmentation. In this study, a combination of solubility, spectrophotometry, and melanin degradation analysis are applied to several color forms and species of these lineages to determine that orange-red colors in both lineages are comprised of primarily dopamine-derived pheomelanins. Until a few recent studies, pheomelanins were thought not to occur in insects. These results support their potential to occur across insects and particularly among the Hymenoptera. Shifts between black and orange-red colors, such as between mimetic color forms of bumble bee Bombus melanopygus, are inferred to involve modification of the ratios of dark eumelanins to red pheomelanins, thus implicating the melanin pathway in mimetic diversification. This discovery highlights the need to focus on how pheomelanins are synthesized in the insect melanin pathway and the potential for new pigments to be found even in some of our most well-known insect systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0182135
JournalPloS one
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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