Characterization of queen supergene pheromone in the red imported fire ant using worker discrimination assays.
Ants use chemical signals to communicate for various purposes related to colony function. Social organization in the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, is determined by the Sb supergene, with colonies of the monogyne (single-queen) form lacking the element and colonies of the polygyne (multiple-queen) form possessing it. Polygyne workers accept new reproductive queens in their nest, but only those carrying Sb; young winged queens lacking this genetic element are executed as they mature sexually in their natal nest or as they attempt to enter a foreign nest to initiate reproduction after mating and shedding their wings. It has been suggested that queen supergene genotype status is signaled to workers by unsaturated cuticular hydrocarbons, while queen reproductive status is signaled by piperidines (venom alkaloids). We used high-throughput behavioral assays to study worker acceptance of paper dummies dosed with fractions of extracts of polygyne queens, or blends of synthetic counterparts of queen cuticular compounds. We show that the queen supergene pheromone comprises a blend of monoene and diene unsaturated hydrocarbons. Our assays also reveal that unsaturated hydrocarbons elicit discrimination by polygyne workers only when associated with additional compounds that signal queen fertility. This synergistic effect was obtained with a polar fraction of queen extracts, but not by the piperidine alkaloids, suggesting that the chemical(s) indicating queen reproductive status are compounds more polar than cuticular hydrocarbons but are not the piperidine alkaloids. Our results advance understanding of the role of chemical signaling that is central to the regulation of social organization in an important invasive pest and model ant species.