What are Pheromones & How do Bees Use Them?

by Leslie Reason on September 07, 2022

bees chase beekeeper man

Have you ever been stung by a bee, then another one shows up, soon there’s a couple more, and before you know it, you’re doing your best ninja impersonation!?

I believe most of us have had a moment like this. I mean, it doesn’t matter whether you’re on a picnic, trying to enjoy your garden, or you’re a beekeeper that got yourself in the situation, I’m sure we can all agree, it’s no fun.

So, how do bees know who & when to attack? After some research, I found you a quick & easy answer, Alarm Pheromones, but what are they…

What are Alarm Pheromones?

Merriam-Webster defines pheromones as: a chemical substance that is usually produced by an animal and serves especially as a stimulus to other individuals of the same species for one or more behavioral responses.

The alarm pheromones in honeybees are mainly produced in workers by the Koschevnikov gland which is located near the sting shaft. These pheromones are especially important to the colony, since the guard bees at the entrance are constantly inspecting everything that comes near the entrance, making certain only the bees that belong there enter, and kicking anyone else out.

When danger is spotted, guard bees appear at the hive entrance, raising their abdomen and exposing the sting chamber to release the alarm pheromones; they do this, all while they fan their wings. This then raises the alarm to the rest of the colony, and more reinforcements will arrive to help with the intruder.

honeybee alarm pheromone make-up

Figure 5.3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK200983/

The alarm pheromone make-up is quite complex, over 40 compounds (including precursor, intermediate, and final biosynthetic products) have been identified from extracts of the worker sting apparatus, among which about 15 components stimulate one or more alarm behaviors.

Did you know?
  • Bananas mimic the attack pheromone!
  • This is due to a chemical produced by both ripening fruit & honeybees called Isoamyl acetate…
  • So, if you’re a beekeeper, it’s probably best not to eat a banana before checking hives!

Luckily, we’ve learned a few tricks, so there’s less chance of being stung.

If you’ve seen a beekeeper working with their hives, you may have noticed them using a smoker to puff smoke at the hive entrance. When they do this, the smoke helps to generate a different type of alarm pheromone, fire! The bees now think there is a forest fire, so they gorge on honey since they will now have to relocate (due to the fire).

While the bees are busy, the beekeeper can go about their inspection with less interference. There’s also an interesting theory that this gorging helps to make the abdomen too distended and rounded to curl their stinger around to sting. I like this theory, and it seems as plausible as many others I’ve heard.

Sometimes beekeepers also use smoke on parts of their suit, gloves, or equipment. This is usually because they’ve been stung, and the smoke helps to mask the pheromones produced to alert the rest of the hive to an intruder. The smoke will also help cover any smells from perfume or deodorants, but you should probably give those a miss when working with bees.

Other than just a beekeeper intruding, there are other flaws with the pheromone system; the wax moth will spend time around a colony until it learns to mimic the queen’s pheromone. It then enters through the front entrance, where it will lay its eggs, and if the colony isn’t very strong, it can lead to the destruction of a hive.

More Pheromones

A honeybee colony uses many different pheromone compounds to communicate; The Queen Pheromone holds the colony together (literally), the Nasonov Pheromone helps bees know where they need to go, the Footprint or Tarsal Pheromone is laid down by the Queen in the colony to let workers know she’s still there, and it’s also produced by workers while foraging.  

So, while I’ve only covered a few of the alarm pheromones in this article, at least we know how the honeybee can use pheromones as communication tools, and in doing so, they can efficiently arrange an attack when we disturb them.


Queen Pheromone Colony Impacts

Queen Pheromone – Colony Impacts

Figure 5.1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK200983/


NIH: National Library of Medicine: Chapter 5 Chemical Communication in the Honey Bee Society https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK200983/

Merriam-Webster.com: Pheromone https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pheromone

Science Direct: Isoamyl Acetate: Animal Models of Movement Disorders, 2005 https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/biochemistry-genetics-and-molecular-biology/isoamyl-acetate#:~:text=Certain%20species%20of%20honeybee%20release,and%20thus%20incites%20multiple%20stings.

Bee Health: How do honey bees use pheromones to communicate? https://bee-health.extension.org/how-do-honey-bees-use-pheromones-to-communicate/


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