Journal of Chemical Ecology

, Volume 44, Issue 9, pp 827–837 | Cite as

Evolution of Caste-Specific Chemical Profiles in Halictid Bees

  • Iris SteitzEmail author
  • Callum Kingwell
  • Robert J. Paxton
  • Manfred Ayasse


Chemical communication is crucial for the maintenance of colony organization in eusocial insects and chemical signals are known to mediate important aspects of their social life, including the regulation of reproduction. Sociality is therefore hypothesized to be accompanied by an increase in the complexity of chemical communication. However, little is known about the evolution of odor signals at the transition from solitary living to eusociality. Halictid bees are especially suitable models to study this question as they exhibit considerable variability in social behavior. Here we investigated whether the dissimilarities in cuticle chemical signals in females of different castes and life stages reflect the level of social complexity across halictid bee species. Our hypothesis was that species with a higher social behavior ergo obligate eusocial species possess a more distinct chemical profile between castes or female life stages. We analyzed cuticular chemical profiles of foundresses, breeding females and workers of ancestrally solitary species, facultative and obligate eusocial halictid species. We also tested whether social complexity was associated with a higher investment in chemical signals. Our results revealed higher chemical dissimilarity between castes in obligate than in facultative eusocial species, especially regarding macrocyclic lactones, which were the single common compound class overproduced in queens compared with workers. Chemical dissimilarities were independent of differences in ovarian status in obligate eusocial species but were dependent on ovarian status in facultative eusocial species, which we discuss in an evolutionary framework.


Sweat bees Communication Social organization Eusociality Sociobiology Chemical distance Fertility signals Macrocyclic lactones 



The authors thank Antonella Soro, Bill Wcislo and Beryl Jones for their helpful collaboration and collection of samples, Laura Campos for assistance in collecting and analyzing some of the data and Jonas Kuppler as well as two anonymous reviewers and Etya Ansalem for helpful comments on the manuscript. We acknowledge Stefan Schulz for his help in structure elucidation. Callum Kingwell was funded by scholarships from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and Iris Steitz by a scholarship from the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Evolutionary Ecology and Conservation GenomicsUniversity of UlmUlmGermany
  2. 2.Department of Neurobiology and BehaviorCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  3. 3.Smithsonian Tropical Research InstitutePanama CityPanama
  4. 4.General Zoology, Institute for Biology, Martin Luther University Halle-WittenbergHalle (Saale)Germany
  5. 5.German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-LeipzigLeipzigGermany

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