Chemical niche differentiation among sympatric species of orchid bees

Ecology. 2009 Nov;90(11):2994-3008. doi: 10.1890/08-1858.1.


Male Neotropical orchid bees (Euglossini) collect volatile substances (fragrances) from flowers and other sources (e.g., decaying wood) and store them in specialized hind tibial pockets. The accumulated chemicals are later emitted during courtship display, presumably to lure conspecific females for mating. We analyzed tibial fragrances of males of 15 sympatric Panamanian species in the genus Euglossa to test whether communities of euglossine bees are chemically structured, and to elucidate whether male fragrance signals evolve to convey premating isolation. Our analysis revealed substantial chemical disparity among all lineages. Disparity was mediated by compounds that were exclusive to certain species but also by differences in relative quantity of shared compounds. We mapped tibial fragrance compounds present in each species on a DNA-based phylogeny (reconstructed using partial sequences of COI, EF1-alpha, ArgK, and Pol-II) and found that most dominant compounds were highly homoplasious. In an analysis of chemical differentiation in relation to phylogenetic divergence through time, disparity was greater than expected from a null model at any point during evolutionary history, suggesting that diversifying selection has shaped fragrance phenotypes. Notably, chemical disparity was greater within recently diverged lineages than among them, suggesting that chemical preferences in orchid bees evolved rapidly in the early stages of species divergence. We postulate communication interference as the possible mechanism behind the observed fragrance differentiation, which may be the product of reproductive character (fragrance) displacement. Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that male fragrance signals evolve to convey premating isolation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bees / genetics*
  • Bees / physiology*
  • Ecosystem
  • Female
  • Geography
  • Male
  • Orchidaceae
  • Panama
  • Phylogeny
  • Sex Attractants / chemistry*
  • Sex Attractants / physiology
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Species Specificity


  • Sex Attractants