The appeasement effect of sterility signaling in dominance contests among Bombus terrestris workers

Etya Amsalem*, Abraham Hefetz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The establishment of dominance hierarchies through aggressive interactions is very common in insect societies. In many cases, it is also mediated through pheromone emissions that enable individuals to evaluate the reproductive quality and level of aggressiveness of the dominant individual, thereby reducing the number and intensity of costly fights. Here, we studied these processes in the primitively eusocial bee Bombus terrestris, using a paired bee system. Specifically, we investigated the behavioral, reproductive, and pheromonal correlates of dominance establishment. Workers were shown to establish dominance hierarchies using overt aggression within 3-4 days. Thereafter, the aggression drastically decreased, and dominance was maintained mostly by ritualized agonistic behavior. The behaviorally dominant bee lost the ester compounds that workers produce in their Dufour's gland (the so-called "sterility signal") concomitantly with the development of her ovaries. The other bee announced as subordinate by continuously producing high amounts of those esters. The hypothesis that sterility signaling serves as an appeasement signal to pacify the dominant bees is supported by the negative correlation found between the proportion of these esters and the level of aggression that the subordinate received from the dominant worker. Physical interactions, and presumably also the ensuing overt aggression between the bees, were essential for the above pheromonal change to take place and enabled the dominant workers to develop their ovaries and to lay eggs. The subordinate bee's signaling of non-reproductive status may minimize energy expenditure in costly fights and help stabilize the reproductive division of labor among workers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1685-1694
Number of pages10
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number10
StatePublished - 2010


FundersFunder number
Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities
Israel Science Foundation535/08


    • Aggression
    • Bombus terrestris
    • Dufour's gland
    • Reproductive competition
    • Sterility signal


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