Melecta albifrons - My first Cuckoo Bee of the Year

06th April 2014
In my previous blog post, I described some of the parasitic relationships between solitary bee species and flies. Interestingly though, of our 200+ species of solitary bee in the UK, about a third are parasitic on other solitary bee species! By parasitic I'm meaning cleoptoparasitic, where a bee "steals" the nest and food-stores of the "host" bee; killing the host bee larva in the process. As such, they are also referred to a cuckoo bees. (There are also cuckoo bee species amongst the social bees).

I'm fortunate in that the east-facing stone wall of our house attracts several solitary bee species, including the Hairy-footed Flower Bee; Anthophora plumipes (more about this bee here). The bees excavate their nest burrows in the soft lime mortar between the stones. The males have been emerging over the last couple of weeks, and I've been observing and photographing them. I was checking yesterday and saw what I thought was another male sitting at a nest hole entrance, but decided to check more closely with my hand-lens. I was really excited when I realised that this was the cuckoo bee Melecta albifrons. I quickly got my camera. The bee had emerged a little further when I got the first shot (image top left).

This is a very distinctive bee with tufts of white hairs. Unusually for solitary bees, males and females of Melecta albifrons are somewhat similar in appearance. Females are generally rather darker than the males though. This is a male. The white facial hairs are what confused me initially. Anthophora plumipes males have a yellow/white face too (that's my excuse anyway!). I know this is a male because the antennae have thirteen segments. Females have twelve.

In the middle image, the bee has crawled out onto the wall and shows colouration and white areas particularly well.

Melecta albifrons exhibits an interesting cuckoo bee lifestyle. The females have no pollen-collecting apparatus and are thus incapable of provisioning their own brood cells. They investigate areas where Anthophora plumipes are nesting and if they find a completed nest, they break into it, lay one of their own eggs and then re-seal the nest. Many other cuckoo bee species utilise incomplete nests. When the larva hatches, it destroys the host bee egg and then consumes the pollen/nectar food-stores collected by the female Anthophora plumipes. It develops into an adult and emerges the following spring.

It's not uncommon to find totally black individuals of both male and female Melecta albifrons. The final image shows a black female that I photographed last year.

[Click on any image for a larger version]

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