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Mission, Texas

Sphecodes heraclei heraclei; Copyright 2019 Paula Sharp



Genus Sphecodes
Tribe Halictini

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.

Sphecodes heraclei; Copyright 2023 Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

A female Hercules Sphecodes cuckoo bee

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. 


Family:  Halictidae

Subfamily:  Halictinae

Tribe:  Halictini

Genus:  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

Family:  Halictidae

Size: 8-9 mm  (female and male)

Associated plants at NBC: 


Mexican hat

(Ratibida columnifera)


(Viguiera stenoloba) 

Texas palafox

(Palafoxia texana)

Plant family:  Asteraceae

When seen:
November 2018

Sphecodes heraclei cuckoo bee - (c) Copyright 2019 Paula Sharp

A female Hercules sphecodes cuckoo bee (Sphecodes heraclei heraclei)

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,  Accessed [day/month/year guide accessed].

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