You might have heard of the cuckoo, the bird who likes to steal the nests of others, but what about the cuckoo bee?
Well, this creature works in much the same way in that it leaches off the hard work of other bees. But how?
What happens is that the female cuckoo bumblebee will sneak into the nest of another species of bumblebee, kill the queen and then trick the workers in the hive to look after her own larvae.
This is usually done with smaller hives that have weaker defenses and will be more susceptible to her attacks.
So what else does this sneaky little bumblebee get up to? How does it behave? What are its mating patterns? How does it make its way into so many hives and what happens when it does?
We have a breakdown of the cuckoo bumblebee, as well as the various tricks it uses.
What Are Cuckoo Bees?
Cuckoo bees are defined by their ability to sneak into the hive of other bees and trick them into looking after their eggs. It does this by disguising itself as one of the host bees.
They usually look quite similar to these bees and also use a scent to fool them into thinking they are of the same species(see also: Species Breakdown: Fuzzy-Legged Leafcutter Bee [Megachile Melanophaea]).
The female cuckoo bumblebee has a much thicker carapace than other bees, which allows her to defend herself if they do come under attack.
This female cuckoo bumblebee might use two tactics to enter the nest. She might go straight for the incumbent queen and sting her to death immediately or hang around for a few days so that she will smell the same as the nest.
How Can You Tell A Cuckoo Bumblebee In The Wild?
There are a few telltale signs that a cuckoo bumblebee has infiltrated a hive. Here are a few things you should out for:
- No pollen sacks – this bee does not collect pollen, you will not find the distinctive pollen sacks that characterize a lot of other bee species.
- Hairy legs – the male cuckoo bumblebee will have thick black hair on the backs of its legs.
- Darker than most bees – These bees do have sparser fur on the other parts of their body, they are noticeably darker than a lot of bees, having much darker wings and bodies.
- Deep buzz – if you listen closely to the buzzing of these bees, then you will notice that it is a lot deeper than some of the other bees that you might find on this list.
- Bigger heads – these bees have much bigger heads than some of the other species that you might find on this list. They are also boxier and have much more pronounced bodies.
But what are the various species of cuckoo bumblebees? Well, there are a few different varieties, which we’ll go into right now.
Red-Tailed Cuckoo Bee
This is a rare breed of the cuckoo bumblebee, (see also: What Is The Yellow-Faced Bumblebee?)usually found in the North East of England and various parts of Europe.
If you do spot a red-tailed cuckoo bee, then it will probably be the female. The females have the largest wingspan of any bumblebee on the face of the earth. They have red tails with black fur, which makes them very dark bees.
The males are slightly more colorful. They are much smaller than the female and they can be spotted in flight from around June onwards.
They have long red tails with yellow and grayish hairs around the base of their abdomen.
You can see the fully grown female in flight from around May, although younger females take flight a lot later, around June time.
Gypsy Cuckoo Bee
This is a slightly more popular bumblebee, being more widespread around the UK and parts of Europe. This type of bee targets the nests of white-tailed bumblebees and can be seen emerging from hibernation during April (females) and June (males).
The gypsy cuckoo has a pale yellow band around the top of a white tail, although the male has a patch of yellow around the back of the head. They also have a yellow band around the bottom of their thorax and at the top of the abdomen.
This is very similar to some of the other types of cuckoo bumblebee, especially the Vestal Cuckoo Bee, although the Gypsy Cuckoo has paler yellow banding and is fluffier.
Vestal Cuckoo Bee
This type of cuckoo bee comes with bright yellow spots around a white tail. It has a black fur coat with a reddish and yellow collar on the sides of the head. If you take a very close, microscopic look at this collar, then it is sparsely populated with black hairs.
This bee often appears during late March, with the younger female Vestals coming out later during the end of May.
The males are more pronounced and colorful than the females and have an extra yellow band around their waist.
It might be very difficult to tell the Gypsy Cuckoo Bee from the Vestal Cuckoo Bee. However, if you study enough microscopic images of them, then you might get familiar with the smaller differences.
Field Cuckoo Bee
The Field Cuckoo Bee comes with a distinctive pattern on the tail, mainly dark hair with buff coloring on the sides. You can spy the females coming out during June and the males emerging from hibernation around April.
Both male and female bees have a collar around their beck, although the males will be slightly paler. The females have a yellow ring around the thorax and are less hairy and more glossy than the male. The males have whiter tails than the females.
We hope that this handy guide to the Cuckoo Bumblebee has helped you to identify each of these species in the wild.
If you are a keen bee spotter, then you’ll know how rare it is to spy a Cuckoo Bumblebee, so it is worth knowing the physical and behavioral signs beforehand.
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