The great bee shortcut

A few weeks ago, I was watching one of Portugal’s massive black carpenter bees (Xylocopa violacea) feeding from an ornamental flowering bush. The bush had large, bell-shaped, pendulous flowers, which were plenty big enough for the bee to enter, but so light and fragile that they wouldn’t hold its weight. Yet the bee didn’t leave for more pollen-y pastures. Instead, it landed on flower after flower after flower, staying for a few seconds and then going to the next. But not once did it actually try to enter them — it was just landing on top of them, where the flower’s corolla became a narrow tube.

Curious, I inched closer. And closer. Then it flew toward me and landed on a flower practically next to my nose, and I finally saw what it was doing. It was puncturing the tube at the base of the flower and taking the nectar straight from the source. Well, why not? If it’s too hard to get in, just take the shortcut. Clever! (Also: how on earth did the first bee learn to do that?)

Today I was sitting on my veranda, where my jasmine is in near-full, gloriously scented bloom, and what should appear but a big black carpenter bee. Jasmine flowers are also pendulous, and also have fused corollas, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that the bee was utilizing the same shortcut here.

Camera time!

Bee hang

Here he is, clinging to a jasmine blossom. (And we know it’s a he because of the red antennae tips.) As you can see, he has no intention of trying to reach the flower opening. He’s focusing on the tube.

And then:

Bee puncture

Caught in the act! And he is caught, because in effect he’s stealing the nectar. He’s supposed to enter through the flower opening, get pollen dusted on him while trying to reach the nectar, and then go brush that pollen off on another flower while trying to enter it. But of course he’s too big to play fair. This bee is bypassing the Great Pollination Bargain, and those flowers aren’t getting pollinated, unless a smaller insect visits them later. Though it’s hard to feel affronted on behalf of the jasmine when I’m busy admiring the bee’s clever technique.

All’s fair in love and nectar.


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in biology, Portugal, wildlife. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The great bee shortcut

  1. Ana_ñ says:

    The Nectar Thief. How cool!
    Yes, it’s so cool to watch it in these great pictures. I’m not so sure about having one of those next to my nose. So, please, keep doing the fantastic “dirty work”

  2. Power Wench says:

    Here I often see yellow jackets (ground-dwelling wasps) robbing nectar from my fuchsia blossoms the same way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a yellow jacket actually enter the flower the “usual” way. In this case the blossoms would support the wasps, but the wasps find it simpler to bite a hole in the flower tube and reach the nectar that way.

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