SPHECODES CUCKOO BEES
Sphecodes means "like a wasp" in Greek. As is true of cuckoo bees generally, Sphecodes lack the "furry" aspect typical of many bees and are easily mistaken for wasps. Sphecodes of the United States are slender, with black heads; black thoraxes; and sleek abdomens that are either black, red or a combination of black and red. The bees' bodies are often coarsely pitted and their thoraxes, abdomens and legs tend to be sparsely-haired.
Sphecodes are cleptoparasites (also called brood parasites) that tendto prey on Halictus, Lasioglossum and green metallic sweat bees. They occasionally invade the nests of other bee genera as well (such as Colletes, Perdita and Andrena).
Most of the cuckoo bees shown elsewhere in this guide lay eggs in their hosts' nests, confident that their cuckoo larvae will outcompete or destroy the hosts' larvae upon hatching. Many Sphecodes, however, instead destroy the eggs of their hosts upon entering nests to lay eggs. Occasionally, adult Sphecodes move into the nests of their hosts and cohabit with them.
There are 72 recorded Sphecodes species in the United States and Canada. Nonetheless, a mere six have been documented in Texas (Sphecodes atlantis, S. brachycephalus, S. confertus, S. dichrous, S. heraclei, and S. mandibularis). A single species of Sphecodes -- the Hercules Sphecodes cuckoo bee -- has been observed at the National Butterfly Center. This species is shown below.
A female Hercules Sphecodes cuckoo bee
Cuckoo bees of the genus Sphecodes are sometimes called "blood bees," because they frequently have red or partly-red abdomens (an attribute that is more common in females).
Male Sphecodes are often entirely black.
The heads and bodoes of Sphecodes are roughly-pitted.
Distinguishing traits of Sphecodes cuckoos bees
Sphecodes vs. Halictus and Lasioglossum sweat bees: Sphecodes cuckoo bees are sometimes mistaken in the field for Halictus or Lasioglossum sweat bees. Sphecodes, however, differ from sweat bees in many general respects. (1) Female Sphecodes lack scopal hairs on their legs, because they do not collect pollen: they drink nectar and rely on their hosts to provide pollen for Sphecodes offsping. (2) Sphecodes males do not have yellow facial markings (while many similarly-colored male sweat bees do). (3) The thorax and vertex of Sphecodes bees are often roughly pitted.
TAXONOMY OF SPHECODES
Species: Sphecodes heraclei (Hercules Sphecodes)
Subspecies: Sphecodes heraclei heraclei
Sphecodes Species of the National Butterfly Center & the Lower Rio Grande Valley
Hercules Sphecodes Cuckoo Bee
Sphecodes heraclei heraclei
Size: 8-9 mm (female and male)
Associated plants at NBC:
Plant family: Asteraceae
A female Hercules sphecodes cuckoo bee (Sphecodes heraclei heraclei)
A female Sphecodes heraclei heraclei
Females of this subspecies have black heads and thoraxes and partly-red abdomens.
Alternate view of a female Sphecodes heraclei heraclei
Dorsal view of female bee
Hercules sphecodes have a distinctive circular bump on the vertex (the top of the head), located behind the bee’s ocelli (small eyes). This trait is diagnostic of the species and has led to its alternate name -- the "cyclops sphecodes bee". Males of this species have distinctive scalloped antennae.
There are two subspecies of Hercules sphecodes: In the subspecies Sphecodes heraclei heraclei, shown here, the female bee has a partly-red abdomen, while the male bee has a black abdomen. In the subspecies Sphecodes heraclei ignitus, the female has a red thorax as well as a partly red abdomen; males have some red coloration on the abdomen as well.
Hercules sphecodes have been documented feeding on a fairly wide range of plants. The female bee featured here was spied nectaring on aster-family flowers in November, alongside Halictus ligatus sweat bees.
CITE THIS PAGE: Sharp, Paula and Ross Eatman. "Sphecodes." Wild Bees of the National Butterfly Center of Mission, Texas. 15 Jan. 2019, http://www.wildbeestexas.com. Accessed [day/month/year guide accessed].