A worker tends to a Lasius niger queen, who is about to take off in search of a new colony. Photo: Stuart Hogton.

Queen pheromones

A worker tends to a Lasius niger queen, who is about to take off in search of a new colony. Photo: Stuart Hogton.

Queen pheromones

Queen pheromones are chemical signals produced by reproductive females, or queens, in social insects such as bees, ants, wasps, and termites. I am especially interested in queen pheromones that cause other colony members to become sterile, because reproductive division of labour is the defining – and most evolutionarily striking – characteristic of the social insects.

I have been working on queen pheromones since 2008, when I conducted the first experimental bioassay to identify a queen pheromone from an ant (the black garden ant, Lasius niger). In a series of follow-up papers, we showed that the queen pheromone signals the fecundity and condition and of the queen, suggesting that it is an ‘honest signal’ of the queen’s value to the workers. That is, the workers probably ‘choose’ to remain sterile when they perceive the presence of a healthy queen, since it is more profitable for them to reproduce indirectly by helping to raise the queen’s young (who are usually the workers’ brothers and sisters).

Later on, I co-discovered the first queen pheromone for a bumblebee and a wasp, in collaboration with Tom Wenseleers and colleagues. The queen pheromones of most ants, wasps and bees are quite similar, which is surprising given that these three groups evolved their eusocial societies independently, and have been evolving independently for well over 100 million years. This suggests that queen pheromones evolved from some sort of chemical signal (such as a sex pheromone signaling egg production) that was already present in the solitary insects that were the common ancestors of the eusocial Hymenoptera.

My most recent work focuses on the transcriptomic effects of queen pheromones. As one might expect of a pheromone that profoundly alters the behaviour and physiology of workers exposed to it, we find that queen pheromones affect the expression of a great many genes. We found striking similarity in the genetic circuits targetted by queen pheromones in bees and ants, which are separated by 150 million years of independent evolution.

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Luke Holman
Senior Lecturer

Publications

Many ants, bees, and wasps use similar or identical chemicals as queen pheromones, even though these taxa diverged >150MYA, and …

In a recent study, Amsalem, Orlova & Grozinger (2015) performed experiments with Bombus impatiens bumblebees to test the hypothesis …

DNA methylation is emerging as an important regulator of polyphenism in the social insects. Research has concentrated on differences in …

Queen pheromones are among the most important chemical messages regulating insect societies yet they remain largely undiscovered, …

Queen pheromones are chemical signals produced by reproductive individuals in social insect colonies. In many species they are key to …

Eusocial insects exhibit reproductive division of labour, in which one or a few queens perform almost all of the reproduction, while …

The nonreproductive helpers of many arthropod, bird and mammal species are a perennial puzzle for evolutionary biologists. Theory and …

The ultimate causes of honest signaling remain a subject of debate, with questions remaining over the relative importance of costs and …

Communication between organisms involves visual, auditory, and olfactory pathways. In solitary insects, chemical recognition cues are …

Social organisms have evolved diverse and complex regulatory mechanisms that allow them to coordinate group-level functions. Signals …

Signal costs and evolutionary constraints have both been proposed as ultimate explanations for the ubiquity of honest signaling, but …

Group-living species produce signals that alter the behavior and even the physiology of their social partners. Social insects possess …

The selective forces that shape and maintain eusocial societies are an enduring puzzle in evolutionary biology. Ordinarily sterile …

Social insects offer unique opportunities to test predictions regarding the evolution of cooperation, life histories and communication. …