In the queenless ant, Diacamma ceylonense, the cuticular hydrocarbons (C25-C35) of nestmate workers vary in their proportions according to age and fertility. Newly eclosed adults ('callows') initially have the same cuticular profile, but with time this changes to that typical of foragers. In contrast, workers that begin to produce eggs develop a different cuticular profile. Several substances (n-C29 and some methyl C25 and C27) discriminate these different social categories (callows, foragers and egg-layers). In Diacamma ceylonense, inter-colony variation of the cuticular hydrocarbons was much lower than intra-colony variation. We also found qualitative differences between the sexes, with males having a clearly different profile with much more alkanes. We discuss these results in the context of physiological models of the relation between ovarian activity and the synthesis of cuticular hydrocarbons. Variations in cuticular profile are a reliable reflection of ovarian activity, and could be used by ants as a fertility signal. © 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd.