Category Archives: Melissodes

Meet the Pollinators: Pollinator Syndromes

One thing I love about walking around a garden is guessing what kind of animal each type of plant relies on for pollination. This is because plants that rely on certain types of animal pollinators are often adapted to be particularly attractive to that type of animal, a phenomenon known as “pollinator syndromes.” The following slides are from a poster I made showcasing pollinator syndromes. Once you read these, you can be an expert, too!

Beetles

Flies

Butterflies

Birds

Bats

Wasps

Bees

Meet the Pollinators

The Male of the Species: The Dastardly Deeds of Male Bees

Melissodes, or longhorn bee, male resting on Plantago lanceolata. (c) 2011 MRS

Male insects engage in a variety of elaborate, sometimes touching, courtship behaviors to woo their mates. Some take females out to dinner first. Others perform elaborate dances or displays for the prospective mate.

Not so with bees. They pounce on their mate and, without much ado, engage in copulation. Here’s a quaint little description by Clarence Custer from a 1928 paper published in The Canadian Entomologist, back when such prose was considered suitable for scientific writing:

“Ceaselessy, the males … were darting back and forth. Occasionally, a female circled her way in from the fields, her hind legs bright yellow with their heavy loads of pollen. Then, almost inevitably, the males rushed in on all sides. There was a collision in mid-air and a sudden descent to the ground…”

Gripping, right?

Clearly, these bees are no gentlemen. An extreme case would be the Dawson’s bees in Australia, in which the male bees fight to the death for access to females. In case you missed it, here is some ultraviolent, high-def footage from the BBC documentary, Life, featuring our favorite nature documentary narrator: David Attenborough:


[I am pained to admit that unless I don’t know something about Dawson’s bees specifically, these male bees are not stinging each other to death as our beloved David Attenborough suggests. The bee stinger is a modified structure of the female reproductive system; therefore male bees cannot sting. If you happen to catch one, however, they can and will pretend to sting, and sometimes even pinch you with their external genitalia (rude, I know).]

Why else might males be considered ungentlemanly? Let us count the ways:

1. They Don’t Help Around the House
As I mentioned in my last post, male bees do not help at all with nest construction. This is why they are often visible sleeping in their bachelor pads.

2. They Don’t Bring Home the Bacon
Female bees spend much of their adult lives collecting pollen for their offspring. Since males do not provide for their young, they have no need to carry pollen with them. Therefore, they do not have pollen carrying structures, such as long hairs on the legs, that females have. If you see a large orange or yellow blob on the hind legs or bottom of the abdomen, you are probably looking at a hardworking female and not a barhopping male.

3. Their Straggly, Bearded Appearance

Males are, in general, smaller, longer, and narrower than females. Their antennae are also longer; an extreme example would be the longhorn bee. They are often described as having a rangy, scraggly-looking appearance.
In many cases, males have white faces, known as “beards,” that females lack. For more information, check out this informative post at Anna’s Bee World: http://buzzybeegirl.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/boy-girl-boy-bee/

(c) 2009 Gary McDonald

So to illustrate, here are two photos of Melissodes bees, a male and a female.
This first photo on the right is a large, robust bee with short antennae and no beard. Also, please note the fabulous bright orange legwarmers, which are actually long hairs to which pollen is adhering.

This is clearly a female. Now let’s look at the next photo:

It's a Male!

Three strikes means this Melissodes, or longhorn bee, is most definitely a male. (c) 2012 MRS

Now that I’ve trashed the reputation of those ne’er-do-well male bees, maybe I should tell you that they’re certainly not the worse culprits in Insect World. Male bedbugs, for example, engage in “traumatic insemination” in which they puncture the bodies of females and inject sperm directly into their body cavity. And not all male bees have it easy, either. Take male honeybees, for example. Although attended from birth by their sisters, honeybee drones undergo “explosive ejaculation” during mating, which is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. You can read more about the “sad plight of the drone bee” at http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ww0701.htm#Drone

The Male of the Species: Bachelor Pads

male squash bee

Peponapis pruinosa, or the squash bee, collects pollen from squash (Cucurbita) flowers. While the females build underground nests for their young, the males typically spend the night inside of a closed squash flower. (c) MRS 2011

Male bees have just one job in life: to make sure their genes are passed on to the next generation, or in other words, to find and mate with as many females as possible. While adult females spend most of their lives building nests, gathering pollen for their young, and laying eggs, the males spend their lives drinking nectar (sugar water) and cruising for ladies.

So when it gets too dark to fly in the evening, where do these males spend the night? Once a female has mated, she no longer has any interest in males. She certainly won’t let him stay in her cozy nest underground, on which she has worked so hard. In addition, males generally emerge earlier in the season than females so that they won’t miss out on any exciting mating opportunities.

Left out in the cold and exposed to predators, male bees make do with a variety of bachelor pads.

Some males opt to spend the night alone in a flower, usually one that closes for the evening so that they will be protected. The photo at the top of this post is one that I snapped early one morning at Eatwell Farms in Dixon, CA of a male squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa) getting ready to start his day after spending the night in a closed squash flower. Here’s another photo of the same individual that was taken earlier (as in before I disturbed him and made him turn around):

Male bees of the same species tend to have the same sleeping strategy. For example, male squash bees all sleep in squash flowers. Hungry females are bound to visit squash flowers, so by spending more time there, a male is more likely to encounter an unmated female. After all, what better place to look for mates than at the nectar bar?

Other males prefer safety in numbers. These guys sleep together in groups, called sleeping aggregations. You might see them early in the morning, grasping onto stems or leaves with either jaws or legs. Here are some photos of a sleeping aggregation of Long Horn bees (Melissodes) males that I took at Free Spirit Farm in Winters, CA:

A Melissodes sleeping aggregation, the ultimate stag party (c)2011 MRS

I took these photos just as the bees were warming up for the day. They certainly didn’t appreciate my intrusion and took off as soon as their flight muscles warmed up. Good thing that male bees don’t sting…

The last type of bachelor pad, of which I have no photos, consist of crevices and old abandoned nests.

Tune in next time to learn how to tell whether a bee is male or female…