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Poison and alarm: the Asian hornet Vespa velutina uses sting venom volatiles as an alarm pheromone.

  • Author(s): Cheng, Ya-Nan
  • Wen, Ping
  • Dong, Shi-Hao
  • Tan, Ken
  • Nieh, James C
  • et al.

In colonial organisms, alarm pheromones can provide a key fitness advantage by enhancing colony defence and warning of danger. Learning which species use alarm pheromone and the key compounds involved therefore enhances our understanding of how this important signal has evolved. However, our knowledge of alarm pheromones is more limited in the social wasps and hornets compared with the social bees and ants. Vespa velutina is an economically important and widespread hornet predator that attacks honey bees and humans. This species is native to Asia and has now invaded Europe. Despite growing interest in V. velutina, it was unknown whether it possessed an alarm pheromone. We show that these hornets use sting venom as an alarm pheromone. Sting venom volatiles were strongly attractive to hornet workers and triggered attacks. Two major venom fractions, consisting of monoketones and diketones, also elicited attack. We used gas chromatography coupled to electroantennographic detection (GC-EAD) to isolate 13 known and 3 unknown aliphatic ketones and alcohols in venom that elicited conspicuous hornet antennal activity. Two of the unknown compounds may be an undecen-2-one and an undecene-2,10-dinone. Three major compounds (heptan-2-one, nonan-2-one and undecan-2-one) triggered attacks, but only nonan-2-one did so at biologically relevant levels (10 hornet equivalents). Nonan-2-one thus deserves particular attention. However, the key alarm releasers for V. velutina remain to be identified. Such identification will help to illuminate the evolution and function of alarm compounds in hornets.

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