How Orchid Bees Evolved to Produce and Collect Their Own Scents

Jenn Hoskins
6th July, 2024

How Orchid Bees Evolved to Produce and Collect Their Own Scents

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • The study focused on male orchid bees from Central and South America, examining their perfumes and labial gland secretions
  • Male orchid bees rapidly evolve their perfumes, which helps them recognize and attract mates
  • Labial gland secretions evolve more slowly and show strong similarities within each genus
The study conducted by researchers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum sheds light on the unique behavior of male orchid bees, which create species-specific perfumes functioning as sex pheromones[1]. These bees collect volatile chemicals from their environment, including both floral and non-floral sources, to formulate complex blends. This study aimed to investigate how the chemical composition of these acquired perfumes and labial gland secretions varied across 65 species in five genera from Central and South America. The research found that perfumes in male orchid bees evolve rapidly, which supports the idea that these compounds diverge significantly among closely related species due to their role in species recognition. This rapid evolution of perfumes was shown by the low overall phylogenetic signal, meaning that closely related species had quite different perfume compositions. Interestingly, the genus Eulaema was an exception, with perfumes clustering closely in chemospace, partly due to high proportions of carvone and trans-carvone oxide. This finding aligns with previous research that identified carvone epoxide as a key component in the floral scent bouquet of many perfume-rewarding plants pollinated by Eulaema bees[2]. In contrast, labial gland secretions showed a strong phylogenetic signal at the genus level. For instance, secretions in the genera Eufriesea and Exaerete were dominated by fatty acids, while those in Eulaema were dominated by saturated acetates with chain lengths of 12 to 16 carbon atoms. The majority of Euglossa species had secretions heavily dominated by one unsaturated long-chain diacetate, (9Z)-Eicosen-1,20-diyldiacetate. However, a few highly divergent species of Euglossa in four subclades (11 species) appeared to have secondarily replaced this diacetate with other compounds. The study highlights the difference in evolutionary rates between environment-derived perfumes and labial gland secretions. Perfumes evolve rapidly due to their role in species recognition and sexual signaling, a critical aspect of reproductive isolation. This finding is consistent with earlier studies showing how sexual signaling, including chemical signals, can serve as reproductive barriers[3]. On the other hand, labial gland secretions evolve more slowly, likely constrained by the underlying biochemical pathways. This slower evolution might also be influenced by interactions between the perfumes and the solvents in the labial gland secretions. The findings from this study not only provide insights into the chemical ecology and evolution of orchid bees but also contribute to our understanding of how chemical signals can drive speciation. By demonstrating the rapid evolution of perfumes and the slower, more constrained evolution of labial gland secretions, the study offers a comprehensive view of the mechanisms behind species-specific chemical signaling in orchid bees. The research underscores the importance of chemical signals in reproductive isolation and species recognition, aspects that are crucial for understanding the broader processes of evolution and speciation in the animal kingdom.

BiochemAnimal ScienceEvolution


Main Study

1) Evolution of Acquired Perfumes and Endogenous Lipid Secretions in Orchid Bees

Published 3rd July, 2024

Related Studies

2) Subtle Chemical Variations with Strong Ecological Significance: Stereoselective Responses of Male Orchid Bees to Stereoisomers of Carvone Epoxide.

3) The evolution of sexual signaling is linked to odorant receptor tuning in perfume-collecting orchid bees.

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