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Hylaeus bees are easily confused with wasps

The finding of a Hylaeus (hi-LEE-us) in my backyard means I have found representatives of five bee families within a stone’s throw of my house. Only six families of bees are present in North America, so I feel honored indeed.

I found this bee totally by accident. A week ago I had been taking pictures of other bees and, as usual, I quickly deleted most. But later on, much to my dismay, I recognized a portrait of a bee in one of my books that looked just like one I had deleted. Oh no! I had made the beginner mistake of thinking a Hylaeus was a wasp, and since I don’t usually keep wasp photos, it was gone. Delete? Yes. Are you sure? Yes. Needless to say, I was furious with myself.

After that, I spent countless hours kneeling in the wild carrot blossoms at the soggy edge of the woods, sweltering in the sunshine, and shooting everything that moved. Yesterday, it finally paid off. The photos are not great, but they are good enough to determine the genus.

Defending the territory

Many tiny bees were all over the flowers, and I made another beginner mistake of assuming they were all they same species. Some bees seemed to be dive-bombing other ones, and I thought it was some kind of mating ritual. But once I got into the dichotomous key, the males kept coming up as Ceratina, while the females turned out to be Hylaeus. So all the dive bombing wasn’t a mating thing after all, but more like a territorial thing, as in, “This is my flower, so bug off!”

I persisted, though, and went through all my photos over and over until I found what I was looking for: a male Hylaeus. So exciting!

Pollen soup

The genus Hylaeus is part of the Colletidae, a family known as “plasterer” or “polyester” bees because they line their brood cells with cellophane-like secretions. The Hylaeus are often confused with wasps because they do not carry pollen on their bodies. Instead, they swallow both pollen and nectar and carry it in their crop. Once in the nest, they regurgitate the soupy solution into the waterproofed brood cells—messy, but effective.

The Hylaeus bees are sometimes called “masked bees” because of the white or yellow markings on the face. The markings appear in both sexes, but they are much more pronounced in the male. Most Hylaeus are solitary bees that nest in stems and twigs, but a few nest in burrows left in the ground by other insects. Hylaeus are one of the few genera of bees commonly found in wooded areas.

Honey Bee Suite

Hylaeus female
Hylaeus female foraging on wild carrot. Notice yellow markings on her thorax. © Rusty Burlew.
Hylaeus female face
Hylaeus female foraging on wild carrot. You can see the white patches alongside her compound eyes. © Rusty Burlew.
Hylaeus male
This is the male Hylaeus. Notice the white face mask and the white bands on his legs. © Rusty Burlew.
This is a male Ceratina dive-bombing a female Hylaeus. © Rusty Burlew.
Another dispute
Drama in the flowers: another attempt to remove an interloper. © Rusty Burlew.

By the way, my three favorite books for learning bee identification are:

The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees

Field Guide to the Common Bees of California: Including Bees of the Western United States

California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists

*This post contains affiliate links.

What it means to be a male bee

During an interview about bee stings earlier this week, I happened to mention that drones don’t sting, which lead to a discussion of male bees in general. The fact is, none of them sting.

As it turns out, the stinger is a modified ovipositor. An ovipositor is an egg-laying organ that transmits an egg from the female to it’s final resting place, which may be a cell, a pollen ball, or in the case of wasps, inside another animal or plant. Injecting eggs to the inside of an organism required a long, slender, needle-like appendage.

In the distant past, wasps that needed to subdue the host into which they laid their eggs were aided by chemicals they injected along with the eggs. Later, these chemicals evolved into venom that could also be used for defense.

In an interesting twist of evolution, a queen honey bee has a usable stinger but her eggs are no longer laid through the ovipositor. Instead, her eggs are placed into the brood cell directly from the vagina.

No eggs means no stinger

Since males don’t have any eggs to lay, they don’t have an ovipositor, and without an ovipositor, they don’t have a stinger. To make up for this lack of armor, some bees have a barbed abdomen which they can use to fight off other bees. A common example is the European wool carder which has three dagger-like points that it uses to defend its territory from other bees. The males circle their favorite plants and aggressively chase away any unwanted visitors.

What it means to be male

Because they are all so different, it’s hard to make general statements about male bees. However, a few rules hold up most of the time:

  • Like all male hymenoptera, male bees are haploid, meaning they have only one set of chromosomes. Normally, fertilized eggs become female and unfertilized eggs become male. However, if an egg is homozygous at the sex locus, meaning there are two identical alleles at the sex locus, the bee becomes a diploid male and usually does not survive.
  • After emergence most male bees do not re-enter the nest where they developed. Instead, they stay outside and sleep on a flower in a protected place. Exceptions include the honey bee drone, which is allowed back in until the approach of fall.
  • Males have more body segments than females.
  • Males have more antenna segments than females.
  • Most males bees can mate many times, except for bees in the tribes Meliponini and Apini, which lose all or part of their genitalia during mating.
  • Many males have colorful patches on their faces. If the female of the same species also has color on her face, the male face will be more striking in appearance. In many ways male bees are like male birds, showy and ostentatious.

More differences than similarities

On the other hand, the differences in male bees from species to species is amazing, and encompasses behavior, morphology, and appearance.

Honey bee drones are known for congregating in mating areas known as drone congregation areas. These areas are high in the air and often reform in the same place year after year. Some bee species gather in similar groups, except the gathering occurs not in the air but in flowers. These groups are called leks and are very similar to sports bars.

But not all male bees gather in groups. Some just peruse the nesting areas near to where they were born and wait for females to appear from their nests. Some males even dig down into the ground, intercepting females on their way out.

The size of males differs as well.  In some species the males are larger than their female counterparts and in others they are smaller. The size of males can vary within the species as well. In his book, The Bees of the World, Michener writes that within a species the larger males are more apt to cruise the nesting area looking for females, while the smaller males are more likely to look for females on flowers.

So which is it?

On the wing, it is hard to tell one sex from another. But if you watch bees frequently, you may be able to see them mating (an excellent clue as to who is who), or you may see the the bright colors on the face of a male.

The males drink nectar from flowers, but their visits are usually very short. They do not collect pollen deliberately, and have no corbiculae nor any scopae on their legs, abdomen or thorax. The males may nevertheless be dusted with pollen, and for that reason, some of them make good pollinators.

Honey Bee Suite

These male melissodes are sleeping head-down in a thistle. Most males may not re-enter the nest once they leave. © Rusty Burlew.
The spines on the abdomen of this male European wool carder bee are used to fend off intruders that breach his territory. © Rusty Burlew.
One day last week I found a pile of four drones on a landing board, all were dead with their genitalia exposed. I wonder what that’s all about. © Rusty Burlew.

Absconding bees or death by Varroa?

This past fall, I received many reports and questions about absconding bees, perhaps fifty in all. Every year I get these and I must admit that I’ve always taken the beekeepers’ word for it when they said their bees absconded.

But this year I realized the sheer number of reports was off-kilter somehow. Yes, honey bees abscond on occasion, but it is rare, and it is usually the result of untenable conditions in the hive.

Absconding due to thymol

Only twice have I seen absconding myself. The first time was in the middle of a treatment with thymol (Apilife var) for Varroa mites. I found the cluster, along with their marked queen, in a nearby cedar tree where I was able to capture them. With a bit of research, I discovered other beekeepers who had similar experiences with thymol, especially when daytime temperatures spiked above the recommended treatment threshold.

Absconding due to scavengers

The second time one of my colonies absconded, I received a call from the landowner where I kept an outyard. She said yellowjackets were going in and out of one of my hives. By the time I got there, the bees were pouring out of the hive and clustering below the hive stand, queen and all. I was able to drop the cluster in an empty hive where it stayed. When I opened the original hive, I found it teeming with yellowjackets, bee bits, and ripped and dripping combs.

Other beekeepers have reported absconding after severe infestations with wax moths and small hive beetles. But in all three of these cases, the proximate cause was a scavenger, which means the colony was weak to start with. A healthy, vibrant colony is generally able to control attacks of yellowjackets, beetles, and wax moths. A weakened or hungry colony, however, may decide it is losing the battle and opt to leave. At least, this is how it appears.

Not absconding, but something else

The vast majority of the reports I heard this fall appeared not to be the result of mite treatments or scavengers. Instead, the stories, nearly identical in all cases, claimed the following:

  • The colony that “absconded” was the largest in the apiary, or one of the largest.
  • The incident occurred in September, October, or November.
  • The colony seemed normal during a recent inspection, usually between one and four weeks prior, and then suddenly disappeared.
  • The beekeeper did not see the bees leave or find them later.
  • Honey was left in the hive or it had clearly been robbed (as evidenced by ripped cells).
  • A small amount of brood remained in the hive.
  • A small number of listless bees lingered on the combs, but the rest were gone.
  • The queen was missing.

At first, I wondered if an influx of Africanized genes into the larger population was causing an increase in absconding, but I could find no evidence for that theory in recent literature. So I spent considerable time re-reading the reports (at least those I could find) and concluded that nothing about them suggested absconding. Instead, the observations listed are classic signs of collapse due to Varroa mites.

A plethora of non-treatments

Where I could, I went back and asked those beekeepers how they treated for mites and when. The answers were a hodgepodge, but some examples are listed below:

  • I didn’t see any mites so I didn’t treat
  • I dusted with powdered sugar in the spring and fall
  • I used Honey-B-Healthy
  • I used wintergreen patties
  • I bought a local queen
  • I have a screened bottom board

While there is nothing wrong with doing these things, none of them—even in combination—will handle a mite problem. Many different philosophies have evolved for raising bees in the world of Varroa, but learning to recognize an infestation seems like a logical first step.

Often, when I suggest a colony disappeared due to Varroa mites instead of absconding, I am roundly trounced. “No, they were fine last week.” “It’s not possible because it was my strongest colony.” “The colony was new this year, so it couldn’t have mites.” I find it intimidating to say anything.

What we know about Varroa collapse

Based on observations going back many years, beekeepers collectively know a lot about collapse due to Varroa. Some key points:

  • The number of mites in a colony increases as the bee population increases. But when the bee population begins to decrease in the fall, you are faced with more mites per bee. Likewise, when drone production stops, the mites move into the worker brood. This is the reason colony death from mites skyrockets in September, October, and November.
  • Large colonies support huge numbers of mites. When these colonies contract in preparation for winter, the number of mites in the hive is astronomical. Large colonies—even those that appear healthy—are often the first to fail due to the sheer number of mites.
  • Not only do the large ones fail, but they fail fast. Some say that a large colony can collapse within a week. This “here today, gone tomorrow” aspect is what leads beekeepers to think their hive absconded.
  • Oddly enough, sometimes smaller colonies do better against mites. Their smallness may have been caused by swarming, queen supersedure, or splitting, all of which produces a brood break sometime in the season, which means less brood was raised and fewer mites were produced.
  • Colonies that have collapsed from mites often leave behind honey, sometimes large amounts. This is especially obvious when the colonies collapse during cold months when predators are less likely to clean out the combs.
  • Colonies that collapsed from mites often leave behind some brood. This occurs because life in the hive was preceding normally until a large influx of mites took them down. Because it happens so fast, it can easily occur within the 21-day brood cycle. The result is a patch of brood in an otherwise empty hive.
  • The queen may be missing for a number of reasons. She may have been infected with viruses and died, or she may have starved, or she may have died of exposure because her work force is gone. Her body may have been removed from the hive or she could have fallen into the hive debris. A dead and shriveled queen is hard to spot in a pile of bee bodies.

Where the bees go has always puzzled me, but there have been many observations:

  • In the beginning, the live bees drag out as many bodies as possible. This is more obvious in poor weather when they leave them just outside the door. During warmer or drier days, they will fly them further away so the dead go unnoticed.
  • Sick bees will often fly out and die for the good of the colony. Many people have observed this behavior. On cursory inspection, the dying bees look fine, but they are not.
  • When the hive is sufficiently weakened, predators and scavengers may move in. This can give the appearance that they are the cause of the problem when, if fact, they are the result of it.
  • Sometimes bees have been seen to “abscond” but not in a coordinated way. Instead, individuals may flee from the colony and take up residence in a nearby hive. This drifting spreads mites to other colonies.

I don’t know why beekeepers are unwilling to believe or admit their bees died of mites. If I suggest any other cause of death, they are likely to accept it—or at least consider it. But mention mites, and the answer is usually a resounding “No way!” A stigma associated with mites suggests that you are somehow lacking in ability as a beekeeper if you lose a battle with Varroa mites.

Another common misconception is that mites are easily visible by the beekeeper. In fact, mites make a point of hiding from view. They spend a lot of time beneath capped brood cells and are rarely seen on adult bees. Even if phoretic mites are present on the adults, they can can remain partially concealed between segments.

Whatever the reason for dismissing the mite problem, it’s sad because by denying the evidence we preclude an opportunity to learn and improve. Like most conundrums, the more you know, the more successful you will be.

What to look for

I would prefer you didn’t take my word for it, but do a postmortem on the hive that you suspected of absconding. The first clues to death by Varroa are listed above, that is, a suddenly empty hive that still contains honey and a patch of brood. But if you want more evidence, here are some other things to look for:

  • Look for guanine deposits inside the brood cells. These are white, crystalline patches that adhere to the top of the cell. Randy Oliver at Scientific Beekeeping has a nice description.
  • If there is capped brood, open the cells, pull out the pupae and look for varroa mites.
  • Sift through the debris on the bottom board and search for dead mites.

While honey bees will abscond on occasion, it is rare, especially in races of the European honey bee such as Apis mellifera ligustica and A.m.carnica. Before chalking up your lost colony to something that rarely happens, do a thorough postmortem on your empty hive and keep an open mind.


Asconding-colony-2 under hive stand
This colony left the hive (above) that was full of yellowjackets. The cluster is small because many had been killed by the wasps. © Rusty Burlew.
Absconding-colony-1 hanging from hive stand
Once I relocated the colony into a new hive, I found that the queen was with them. No living bees remained in the hive, only parts of dead ones and ravaged combs. © Rusty Burlew.