Chimney bees and their turrets
Nothing is more exciting than a new bee, so when these photos arrived from Louisiana beekeeper Robert Lunsford, I was immediately enthralled. The photos are great and the bee is way cool.
The bees Robert found are a type of digger bee called Anthophora abrupta, also known as the “chimney bee.” The anthophora bees are in the Apidae family along with honey, carpenter, bumble, and stingless bees. The chimney bees are large and frequently confused with both bumble and carpenter bees. Because they are polylectic—that is, they forage on a wide range of flowers—chimney bees are considered excellent and important pollinators.
Chimney bees are solitary ground nesters, meaning each female builds her own nest in the soil. But they are also communal, meaning they live in sprawling subdivisions containing hundreds or even thousands of nests. They are known for being neither defensive nor aggressive. Although they are capable of stinging, they rarely do. If handled roughly, they tend to bite rather than sting.
And here’s the best part: they are called chimney bees because they build turrets over the entrances to their nests. The turrets look like chimneys in a way, except they are bent over at odd angles. Hundreds of these chimneys in close quarters make an awesome sight. Chimney bees are found from Florida to southern Canada, and from the east coast to Texas.
The life cycle of Anthophora abrupta works like this:
- Adult bees emerge from their underground nests April through June, depending on local climate.
- The males emerge first, up to five days before the females.
- The bees mate on flowers. The male bees may mate many times, but the females mate just once.
- The first batch of females to be born scouts around looking for an appropriate nest site, such as a protected embankment of clay soil. Females born after a local nest site has been established do not seek a new site but nest close to the others.
- The female begins to dig a burrow in the clay. As she digs, she carries the particles to the outside of the tunnel and uses them to build a turret over the burrow entrance. She lines both the burrow and the turret with a secretion from her Dufour’s gland. This secretion hardens into a wax-like material that strengthens and waterproofs the tunnel and provides a smooth interior surface.
- Once the main tunnel is complete, the female starts to excavate a chamber in which to lay an egg. Up to seven chambers may be built off the main tunnel, and each is lined with the waterproof secretion.
- After a chamber is complete, the female gathers nectar and pollen from local flowers. She mixes these with more secretion to make a soft batter on which she lays one egg. She seals the chamber with clay before going on to the next chamber.
- After five days, the egg hatches and the emergent larva begins to eat the provision. For the next three weeks the larva consumes and grows. At the end of this growth period, the larva defecates in the chamber and then transforms into a prepupa.
- The prepupa overwinters for the next nine-and-a-half months. At the end of that period, the bee sheds its prepupal skin and becomes a pupa for about two-and-a-half weeks before emerging as an adult bee.
A very special thanks to Robert for the photos—you made my week!
I included the following photo for a reason: every single beekeeper who has ever sent me photos from Louisiana has included a photo of a lizard. They just can’t help themselves. Although I was in Louisiana once, I don’t remember seeing lizards. I do, however, remember all those dead things in the road. Armadillos, are they?