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Sci Rep. 2018 Apr 9;8(1):5719. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-24054-2.

A death pheromone, oleic acid, triggers hygienic behavior in honey bees (Apis mellifera L.).

Author information

1
Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Michael Smith Laboratories, University of British Columbia, 2125 East Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
2
Dipartimento di Biologia Università degli Studi di Firenze Via Madonna del Piano 6, 50019, Sesto Fiorentino, Italy.
3
Wine Research Center, Food, Nutrition and Health Building, University of British Columbia, 2205 East Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
4
Austrian Institute of Technology GmbH, Biosensor Technologies, 24 Konrad-Lorenzstrasse, Tulln, Austria.
5
Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Michael Smith Laboratories, University of British Columbia, 2125 East Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. foster@msl.ubc.ca.

Abstract

Eusocial insects live in teeming societies with thousands of their kin. In this crowded environment, workers combat disease by removing or burying their dead or diseased nestmates. For honey bees, we found that hygienic brood-removal behavior is triggered by two odorants - β-ocimene and oleic acid - which are released from brood upon freeze-killing. β-ocimene is a co-opted pheromone that normally signals larval food-begging, whereas oleic acid is a conserved necromone across arthropod taxa. Interestingly, the odorant blend can induce hygienic behavior more consistently than either odorant alone. We suggest that the volatile β-ocimene flags hygienic workers' attention, while oleic acid is the death cue, triggering removal. Bees with high hygienicity detect and remove brood with these odorants faster than bees with low hygienicity, and both molecules are strong ligands for hygienic behavior-associated odorant binding proteins (OBP16 and OBP18). Odorants that induce low levels of hygienic behavior, however, are weak ligands for these OBPs. We are therefore beginning to paint a picture of the molecular mechanism behind this complex behavior, using odorants associated with freeze-killed brood as a model.

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