Orchid Bees Blend Their Own Perfume

Among the bees' favorite additions are vanilla and cinnamon.

Humans aren't the only ones that create intoxicating perfume blends, as new research finds that male orchid bees also practice this time-honored craft.

The bees from the genus Euglossa formulate their unique perfumes for reasons similar to ours: to attract mates, establish a signature identity, and smell good in a crowd. They do this by gathering a variety of carefully selected scents from their environment, and then douse their bodies with the perfume.

"The males expose them at the places where mating occurs," said co-author Thomas Eltz of Ruhr-University Bochum, "so the perfumes may be chemical signals to females."

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For the study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, Eltz and his colleagues collected several species of orchid bees during a trip to Panama. They enticed the bees with scents such as vanilla and cinnamon, applied to strips of filter paper that were attached to trees.

"It is quite a spectacular sight to have dozens of green, blue or red metallic bees appear out of nowhere around a bait," Eltz said.

The researchers next analyzed the scents blended by males and also studied how the bees responded when presented with various fragrances.

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Some of the bee-made scents turned out to be unique compounds that are not even commercially available to human shoppers. Co-author Erik Hedenström recreated one of them in the lab: 6-(4- methylpent-3-enyl)-naphtalene-1,4-dione.

When comparing how orchid bee species reacted to multiple fragrances, the scientists determined that the most closely related bee species had similar sensitivity to odor. Conversely, distantly related species showed the greatest differences.

This means that, instead of evolving dramatically different senses of smell to accompany their individual scents, the bees' senses of smell had diverged more gradually over time.

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Despite these changes in the bees' tastes, some distantly related species, such as the Panamanian Euglossa mixta and the Mexican Euglossa dilemma, are both sensitive to a compound called 2-hydroxy-6-nonadienyl benzaldehyde. This compound, as well as the one that Hedenström recreated, are both floral scents.

The new research opens up the possibility of recreating perfumes, which humans could wear and that were formulated, not by trendy designers, but by male orchid bees.

The downside might be that the human wearer could attract female bees eager to mate, but it's also possible that such scents could be sexy and appealing to human suitors as well.

An orchid bee hovers in flight.

If you're looking to help the bees in your hood, consider adding some native flowering plants to your garden. "Think of the flowers your grandmother used in her garden as a practical guide, especially when using nonnative plants," advises a USDA report. "The pollinators will thank you." Looking for some ideas? Check out these flowering plants that can help give bees a boost.

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Crocus are a good choice to attract bees in the early spring. They're also pollinated by butterflies.

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Asters are perennials that provide nectar and pollen, and do well when planted in late summer and fall.

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Geraniums are another pollinator-friendly perennial.

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The Calendula is an annual that's sometimes called a pot marigold.

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Cleome are annuals that are native to the western United States, and they provide pollen in summer to bees.

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Bees loves sunflowers and sometimes even stop on them to catch a few zzzzs.

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Cut flowers, including zinnia (above), celosia, ageratum and wildflowers like goldenrod are bumble bee magnets. So are herbs including lavendar, anise hyssop, motherwort, basil and sage. Want to see more flowers -- and herbs to help bees? Check out this

cool illustration

from American Bee Journal.