Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Sharp-tail bees

It has been a while since I've seen a new bee in the garden. A couple of days ago it was sunny and warm and I watched the first male leaf-cutter bee Megachile willughbiella on a geranium. A while later a bee was basking on top of the fence post and I managed some distant shots. Its jaws looked very leaf-cutter like, but the end of the abdomen had some tell-tale spines, indicating it was a sharp-tailed bee Coelioxys sp. a bee I've only seen rarely in the local wildlife garden.
Although males and females sharp-tailed bees can be found nectaring at flower sources, they are cuckoo bees. The females do not collect pollen, instead, they are cleptoparasites, looking for ready made cells already provisioned with a pollen load. Their usual hosts are leaf-cutter bees, and their common name derives from their tapered abdomen of females, ending in a fine point, which is able to slice through the leaf wrappers of leaf-cutter bees, laying one egg either under the pollen load, or in between layers of the leaf wrapping of the cell before the cell is sealed. The cuckoo bee will also match the sex of her eggs to the host eggs sex, with the male eggs positioned in the outer cells of a nest. Once the larva hatches, they use their large mandibles to kill the host larvae or any other competitors. The cuckoos larvae complete their development and emerge at the same time as their hosts.
  I find the male abdominal spines very intriguing. What is their function? Coelioxys belong to the same family - Megachilidae - than Anthidium manicatum, the wool-carder bee, whose males are armed with formidable abdominal spines with a similar disposition. Male wool carder bees use these spines as weapons to defend their flower territory from other males and also other bees. They can fearlessly attack honeybees and large bumblebees, and are capable of killing them. It is unlikely that sharp-tailed bees use their spines in a similar way, as females do not collect pollen and there is no flower resources to defend. In the monograph Bees of the World, by Charles Michener, he hints at the spines being involved in dealing with the modified female's abdominal tip during copulation.
 There are eight species of sharp tailed bees in the UK, but in general they are very hard to identify without a specimen, so I will have to content myself with not having a definite identification for now.
 I have gone through my records of this genus in the wildlife garden, just five of them in June and July and here I show some record shots.
A male Coelioxys feeding on sage (12/6/10)
Female Coelioxys on birds-foot trefoil (4/6/2011).
Male Coelioxys resting. Many bees hold on with their mandibles in their sleep (10/7/2009).
Female Coelioxys on marjoram (2/7/2011).
Male Coelioxys on meadow cranesbill (11/7/2011).

Cuckoo bees tend to be rare bees, and sharp-tailed bees are no exception. The presence of cleptoparasites indicates a healthy host population. Often cleptoparasites decline and get locally extinct when a host population declines. In a study on sharp-tailed bees, about 3% of over 14,000 host cells (Megachile inermis) contained Coelioxys funeraria and less than 10% of Megachile relativa were parasitised. So, what about the hosts in my garden? The bee posts and bee hotels are commonly used by leaf-cutter bees of at least two species in my garden: Megachile willughbiella and Megachile centuncularis, used as hosts by several British Coelioxys species. Some species of Coelioxys are thought to parasitise Anthophora furcata, which is also a regular bee foraging and possibly nesting in the garden log piles. The synchrony of the hosts is remarkable as both male leaf-cutters and A. furcata, appeared in in garden in the last couple of days too.
This was the first of the year A. furcata in the garden, a male yesterday.
Male M. willughbiella, 29th May.
Male Megachile, possibly centuncularis, yesterday.

More information
Scott, V. L., Kelley, S. T., & Strickler, K. (2000). Reproductive biology of two Coelioxys cleptoparasites in relation to their Megachile hosts (Hymenoptera: Megachilidae). Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 93(4), 941-948.

Michener, Charles Duncan. The bees of the world. Vol. 1. JHU Press, 2000.

Falk, Steven and Richard Lewington 2015. Field guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland. Bloomsbury, London. 432 pp.

1 comment:

RayHolden said...

quick comment:
Those a wonderful shots of the Coelioxys spp. Are they on Flckr?