Reproductive competition in the bumble-bee Bombus terrestris: Do workers advertise sterility?

Etya Amsalem, Robert Twele, Wittko Francke, Abraham Hefetz

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Reproductive competition in social insects is generally mediated through specific fertility pheromones. By analysing Dufour's gland secretion in queens and workers of Bombus terrestris under varying social conditions, we demonstrate here that the volatile constituents of the secretion exhibit a context-dependent composition. The secretion of egg-laying queens is composed of a series of aliphatic hydrocarbons (alkanes and alkenes), while that of sterile workers contains in addition octyl esters, dominated by octyl hexadecanoate and octyl oleate. These esters disappear in workers with developed ovaries, whether queenright (QR) or queenless (QL), rendering their secretion queen-like. This constitutes an unusual case in which the sterile caste, rather than the fertile one, possesses extra components. Individually isolated (socially deprived) workers developed ovaries successfully, but failed to oviposit, and still possessed the octyl esters. Thus, whereas social interactions are not needed in order to develop ovaries, they appear essential for oviposition and compositional changes in Dufour's gland secretion (ester disappearance). The apparent link between high ester levels and an inability to lay eggs lends credence to the hypothesis that these esters signal functional sterility. We hypothesize that by producing a sterility-specific secretion, workers signal that 'I am out of the competition', and therefore are not attacked, either by the queen or by the reproductive workers. This enables proper colony function and brood care, in particular sexual brood, even under the chaotic conditions of the competition phase.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1295-1304
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1660
StatePublished - Apr 7 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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