wild bees and native bees

Habropoda: an early spring digger bee

This handsome creature is a male Habropoda, an early spring digger bee that seems inured to cold and nasty weather. I got these photos on April 9 in a nearby patch of Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, also known kinnikinnick or bearberry. The plant is one of the major clues to the bee’s identity because Habropoda is known to adore all the Arctostaphylos genus, including the manzanitas. The eastern blueberry bee is also in this genus, and is fully capable of buzz pollination.

These bees with their gray fur look almost exactly like the Anthophora. In fact, in Bees of the World, Michener recommends you start with the wing veins to tell them apart. The Habropoda have an elongated marginal cell in the forewing and a third submarginal cell that is shorter in the front than in the back. Although it’s hard to see in the photos, these features are obvious when you’re looking through a hand lens.

Hard to photograph

These bees are quick and nearly impossible to photograph, but the males have a couple of habits that slow them down for a bit. The first two photos are of the same bee resting on a twig. They sleep like this, grabbing a twig between their mandibles and hanging on. I like the second photo because he’s got his forelegs stretched over his head and thorax, grooming for the big moment, perhaps.

The third photo is of a different male examining the ground. It turns out that the males listen for females emerging, and if they hear one, they will dig down to meet her. No patience whatsoever. I didn’t see any females on the day I found these bees. As in many species, the males emerge several days before the females.

Some unusual traits

The Habropoda species shown below nests in the ground in large aggregations that persist from year to year. Unlike most bees, these bees overwinter as adults rather than pupae. After a fall metamorphosis, the adults enter a resting phase until spring.

Also unusual is the fact that not all the larvae from the previous year emerge. Instead, some wait an extra year or two, a biological system that probably protects the species from inclement weather or famine. Since they don’t all emerge at once, the community gets another chance the following year.

These bees definitely prefer cool weather, and they often disappear during the hot part of the day. So if you decide to go out looking for them, start early and listen carefully. They are noisy bees that are easier to hear than see.

Honey Bee Suite

This male Habropoda is hanging onto a twig with his mandibles.

This male Habropoda is hanging onto a twig with his mandibles. © Rusty Burlew.

In this photo, the Habropoda is grooming with his forelegs arched over his head and thorax.

In this photo, the Habropoda is grooming with his forelegs arched over his head and thorax. © Rusty Burlew.

This Habropoda is examining the ground under the plants, probably listening for emerging females.

This Habropoda is examining the ground under the plants, probably listening for emerging females. They gotta be here somewhere! © Rusty Burlew.

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  • Hi Rusty

    My second attempt to post.

    I continue to marvel both at the diversity of bees AND the persistence (and visible reward) of certain bee photographers. THANKS! I gotta say, despite the limited reputation of males as pollinators, this fuzzy boy Habropoda is bound to spread about some pollen while looking for luv. (How big is this bee?)


    • Hi Glen,

      The bee is about as long as a honey bee worker and a little wider. The females are larger than the males.

  • I just wondered if these Habropoda are pretty common where you are. There’s been a survey of bees going on in Seattle for a few years and I’m pretty sure none have been found here. So I can’t help but start speculating–Olympia yes, Seattle no–why? I’m sure there are a host of possibilities. There are only one or two sampling days per month for the survey for example, although they do start the collecting season in March/April so the timing is right. I’m pretty sure most of the collecting is done with bee bowls and some bees are better than others at avoiding/escaping from them. Does the greater urbanization play a role? Or….?? I’m wandering.

    Anyway, if they are pretty common there, I need to put that piece of info in the back of my head somewhere so that I have a sense of where to place them on my “could it be” list when I’m looking at bees outside the city. Thanks!

    • Paige,

      Well, there’s always the possibility that my id is wrong, but here’s the backstory. I’ve been watching this aggregation for four years. The first year I thought it was Anthophora, but when I sent photos to John Ascher, he said without hesitation that is was Habropoda. This year I decided to go through the Anthophorini key myself, and it does follow. I don’t have an idea of what species live here in Thurston County, although according to Michener, Habropoda range from BC to Baja California.

      The ecology where I found this aggregation is South Puget prairie. I’ve been seeing more aggregations this year, in other pieces of the prairie system, usually in areas that also have mounds. So that is probably the difference. I’ve never seen them in town.

  • I thought really interesting that they overwinter as adults and that the larvae may have their development time extended for the next year. Are there paper describing these behavior? Could you pass me the references? I could not find any published work with these informations. Thank you!