Cuckoo Bees

The Black Sheep of Bees

Cuckoo Bees’ Appearance

That’s not a wasp, it’s a Cuckoo Bee! This bee species is slender and hairless, so they are often confused with wasps. Scientifically referred to as Epeoloides Pilosula, these bees range in size from 7-10mm in length and have very little hair on their bodies, except for microscopic hair on their faces. Generally, males have black abdomens and females are red, each with yellow or white markings. The exoskeleton of this species tends to look irregularly thick and sculptured, and are known to have wider heads than most other bees.

Photo above by Charles J. Sharp.

Lifestyle, Habitation, Pollination

Cuckoo Bees are known for being kleptoparasitic; meaning instead of collecting pollen from flowers like other bees do for their young, Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of pollen-collecting bees to let their larvae feed on the pollen the host bee collected. Male and female Cuckoos team up to locate nests created by other bees. While female Cuckoos fly low to the ground in search of a host nest to violate, the males help in the search and release a scent to notify the females when they find a promising nest. Similar to the behavior of Cuckoo Birds, a female Cuckoo bee will sneakily wait for a host bee to depart its nest, then rushes in to quickly lay her eggs inside. Cuckoo Bees usually lay more eggs than host bees and their larva are known to be more aggressive. Sometimes Cuckoo offspring hatch sooner than that of their host’s, and in some cases the larva use their strong mandibles to destroy host eggs, resulting in the death of many host bee species. You might not find it surprising that these villainous, ground-nesting bees are a solitary species. Found across the U.S., adult Cuckoos are active throughout spring and summer. Studies indicate that Cuckoo Bees represent 15% of the world’s bees.

FAQ on Cuckoo Bees

Eating habits: This type of bee feeds on nectar from flowers, but relies solely on the pollen collected by pollen-collecting bees to feed their offspring.

Do they sting? Cuckoo bees have small stingers that they do use to sting, if feeling defensive or irritated. Since Cuckoo bees typically look like wasps, it’s best to keep your distance either way, should you cross paths in a garden or park.

Do they produce honey? Unlike honey bees, cuckoo bees do not produce honey.

Photo above by Harald Hoyer.

Cuckoo For Cuckoo Bees? Here are 6 Ways to Help Them.

Due to their parasitic interspecies relations, it is common for the offspring of Cuckoo bees to interbreed with another species of bee - eventually exhibiting the habits and appearance of their host parents. While your traditional Cuckoo bee does not possess adequate ability or any need to carry pollen, they can still pollinate flowers while stopping in for nectar. If you want to support the black sheep of the bee species, here are a few simple ways you can bolster the Cuckoo bee population in your area:

  • Create a dedicated area of loosely-covered, sandy soil, in a sunny spot, where Cuckoos and other ground-dwelling bees can build ground nests.
  • Keep hollow trees or plant stems in your yard to provide a nesting space.
  • Plant a healthy array of flowers in your yard or garden for the bees to feed on and pick up pollen.
  • Avoid putting down mulch in certain parts of your yard, as this can prove dangerous for ground nesters, which need soil to create a solid nest.
  • Maintain a place in your garden with fresh, clean water in a dish or birdbath.
  • Protect nests and fresh water with chicken wire, which will help keep predators out.

Photo above by John Tann.

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