Cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs) are long-chain fatty acids and their derivatives that protect insects from desiccation. They can also be important semiochemicals in insect reproduction. We used behavioural and chemical assays to examine the potential role of CHCs in sexual communication in a solitary burrowing bee, Amegilla dawsoni. Washing CHC blends from the cuticle of emerging virgin females made them unattractive to mate-searching males. Returning the CHC blends restored their attractiveness. Nesting females were unattractive to mate-searching males, whether they were washed or not. Chemical analysis identified significant differences between male and female CHC blends and between virgin female and nesting female blends. Some of these differences were due to specific compounds. Loss of attractiveness is unlikely to be due to antiaphrodisiac compounds delivered by males, because male-specific compounds were not found on nesting females, and because recently mated females with intact CHC blends were attractive to searching males. Nesting females could not be made attractive to searching males by removing their CHC blends. Adding virgin female CHC blends tended to improve attractiveness but the effect was weak, suggesting that some form of volatile compound may also be involved in signalling unreceptivity. (C) 2003 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.