This substance, which is made of hydrocarbons, usually helps the bees cling to the surface of flowers. “Bumblebees secrete a substance whenever they touch their feet to a surface, much like us leaving fingerprints on whatever we touch,” Richard Pearce, a study co-author and biologist at the University of Bristol, said in a statement. Pearce and colleagues conducted a series of experiments in which bees were exposed to flowers with either their own secretions, those of conspecifics (sister bees or bees from a different nest), or no secretions at all. The bees, they found, could distinguish between their own marks and those of both nest mates and distantly related species.
“This is the first time it has been shown that bumblebees can tell the difference between their scent and the scent of their family members,” Pearce said in the press release.
One reason why it may be beneficial for bees to recognize their own scents is that “they could use this [information] to inform them of depleted flowers they have visited recently or of rewarding flowers they have visited a sufficient length of time ago due to changes in the scent-mark’s chemical composition over time,” according to the study