Cuckoo bees are brood parasites. Their procreation is very similar to the bird of the same name. What makes them parasites is the fact that they don’t look after their own brood. Instead, they quite sneakily lay their eggs in the host’s hive and leave, knowing their offspring will live on. Possibly at the expense of the unsuspecting host.
Cuckoo bees are closely related to their host species. Their appearance and size will depend on the host species. For example, if their host species are bumblebees, then they will look like bumblebees. The main difference is that cuckoo bees will always be solitary.
Social or solitary?
When apiarists talk about bees, in most cases they mean the social honeybees. Social bees have a hierarchical structure in their hives. The hive social structure its as follows:
Queen – She is the only fertile female. Her sole function is to procreate.
Workers – Workers do everything in the colony — from taking care of the young to general maintenance. They are also the ones gathering pollen and making honey.
Drones – They’re the male of the species. Their purpose is to fertilize the queen. When a new queen is hatched, she leaves the colony with some drones in order to start a new one.
Solitary bee species, on the other hand, work alone. There is a single female that creates her own nest and takes care of her offspring there. Oftentimes, they simply lay their eggs, seal them inside the cell, alongside with some provisions and leave. The larvae hatch and use those provisions as sustenance until they’re developed enough to leave the cell. Which of course allows cuckoo bees to enter the scene and ensure the survival of their own offspring at the expense of the host.
Entomologists refer to cuckoo bees as kleptoparasites due to the nature of procreation. Unlike other bee species, cuckoo bees do not take care of their own young. Instead, they trick their host species to do it for them through deception and sneaky tactics.
When cuckoo bees stalk out solitary species, the damage they do is much more severe than eusocial species. Solitary females lay their eggs and then fly out of the nest in order to gather pollen so the larvae have enough food when they hatch. This is when the cuckoo bee comes in — while the nest is unattended, she sneaks in and lays her own eggs in the cell.
The unsuspecting host would then seal them all in with the supplies. Little would she know, there are parasites in the cell and they will develop much faster than her own offspring. Once the cuckoo bee eggs hatch and the larvae come out, they eat all the food and develop quickly, leaving the nest and the host offspring behind. When the host eggs finally hatch, they come into a world that has no place for them. They starve to death while the cuckoo brood survives.
Cuckoo bees can also stalk eusocial species. They are not as harmful to social bees as they are to solitary species. This doesn’t mean they don’t contribute to the number of casualties, though.
With eusocial species, the cuckoo bees sneak into the nest and make their way into breeding ground, laying their eggs there. They often navigate the colony undetected because of their similar genetic makeup to the host species. Naturally evolving alongside their host allows them to mask their presence. If they’re caught, they’re often executed on the spot. This is a risk they’re gladly willing to take.
Once the cuckoo bee younglings hatch, the workers begin to take care of them. Once they’re grown enough, they fly out of the nest only to return once more when they’re ready to reproduce.
Differences Between Cuckoo Bees and Their Host
Cuckoo bees are notoriously hard to detect. Since they are usually related to their host, the similarities in appearance make it really difficult to tell them apart. They instinctively lurk around the host’s colony to take on their odor. Masking their presence with both colors and chemicals makes infiltrating the nest a lot easier.
Because they need to move behind enemy lines, cuckoo bees are a bit bigger and a lot tougher than their host. Some species infiltrate and kill the host queen, which means they need to be bigger, have stronger mandibles, and harder exoskeletons.
If the colony’s population begins to dwindle, an apiarist can check the queen and the eggs to see what’s going on. If there are eggs in the cells but the population continues to decrease, you may have a cuckoo bee. Cuckoo bees don’t produce workers, so it makes sense hives they infiltrate begin to shrink.
Check the queen. If she is marked, it would be easy to detect foul play. If she is not, you can requeen the hive just in case if you have your suspicions. The good news is cuckoo bees are really rare.
Bio: Alexander Crawley is an entomology consultant for Fantastic Services. In his spare time, he loves to photograph insects and study their behavior. He has always been fascinated with insects so this is more than a job for him. It’s a passion.