Our house is built on sand. It sits on a little mesa (elevation) consisting of soil that was excavated to put in the basement. Over the years I found out that we share this site with many sand loving, digging insects, tarantulas and scorpions. And please don't think that that is a problem. Some of these guys may even keep out others that we would like less.
|The little dark parasitic bee, waiting close to the nest entrance|
When I got outside, she was resting on a flat rock. In the soil around it were several small, round holes about 5 mm in diameter. Another bee buzzed closer, circled, landed next to one of the holes and slipped inside.
|A mining bee exiting the nest entrance|
Today I came better prepared. For example, I found a way to sit instead of crouching over the hole for what turned out to be long waiting times. So I got some video of the larger bees that clearly shows that several bees are using the same entrance and are under ground simultaneously. Incidentally, the little bee was inside during that time as well. This time I trapped her and three exiting larger bees to get a closer look. I had an idea by now that I was dealing with mining bees and a clepto-parasite, but I found that I didn't have these guys in my photo collection yet.
|Ancylandrena sp. Doug Yanega det.|
|Hexepeolus rhodogyne, Doug Yanega det.|
Several of my Flickr and facebook connections are bee specialists, so I posted the photos there and on BugGuide.
From Doug Yanega came the response: "The latter is Hexepeolus rhodogyne, and it is a cleptoparasite in nests of Ancylandrena (the first bee). It wasn't until the 1990's that the host-parasite association of these taxa was confirmed, as I recall. The genus Hexepeolus contains only that one species".
John Ascher added a link to the 1994 paper: Biologies of the bee genera Ancylandrena (Andrenidae, Andreninae) and Hexepeolus (Apidae, Nomadinae) : and phylogenetic relationships of Ancylandrena based on its mature larva (Hymenoptera, Apoidea). American Museum novitates ; no. 3108
It turned out that BugGuide had an image of a mounted specimen of the parasite, but only an empty, prepared, page for the host. So I was able to fill in both with white backgound-life-close-ups and action in situ shots:
|BugGuide Info Page|
As for the species id, in Discover Life I found a description of a rare Tucson specialty, A. rozeni, but it would be difficult to identify it without comparative material: A. rozeni - This is a rare species with records restricted to Arizona, specifically known from the Tuscon area - The male appears closest to that of A. larreae though slightly smaller, has a shorter clypeus, has shorter antennae, has smaller light markings in the paraocular area, is less densely pitted anteriorly on the scutum, hairs sparser in the anterior of the scutum, and has a greater proportion of dark hair on the upper areas of the head - The female appears most similar to that of A. timberlakei, although it may be differentiated by the presence of some degree of a tan or yellowish brown mound on the base of the mandible, a greater proportion of dark hairs in the upper areas of the head, the fact that all hairs anterior to the middle of the tegulae are white, and that there is a greater proportion of light-colored hairs on the scopa (2)
Anyway, I preserved a specimen.
So to summarize, Ancylandrena is a mining bee. In spring males and females emerge from underground cells. They mate, and the females dig nest burrows in sandy soil. Mining bees collect pollen in the long hairs of the tibial scopa of the hind legs. (They do not have a 'pollen basket' like honey bees and bumble bees). They construct small cells containing a ball of pollen mixed with nectar, upon which an egg is laid, before each cell is sealed. Although not social, several individuals seem to be sharing at least a nest entrance (Solitary, communal ground-nesting). As many insects do, they provide provisions for their offspring, but they are not around to guard the larvae while these are growing up. Clepto-parasites like the one I observed commonly make use of this arrangement to raise their own brood. Many of these clepto-parasites, like this one, are in the subfamily Nomadinae (Cuckoo Bees). They usually lack the hairs that are used by their relatives to collect and transport pollen. There are a number of strategies to get parasitic eggs into a provisioned nest. In this case the cleptoparasitic bee just followed the host bees to get her eggs into the brood chambers before they were closed. In Rozen's study several eggs of Hexepeolus rhodogyne were attached to the inner wall of the brood chambers while the larger egg of the host bee was sitting on the pollen ball. This explains why Hexepeolus was around for several days entering the same nest repeatedly: she had to access the chambers that were just in the right stage of construction.
PS: I was busy at an art show for three days, but when I checked again on Monday, 3/24/2014 there were still Ancylandrenas entering the same nest. I also found another nest about 60 meters south on a berm planted with cacti and creosote bushes.
Update: In the following years I did not see these bees nesting again. But my observation and photos made it into a great new bee book 'The Bees in Your Backyard' by J S Wilson and O M Carril Princeton University Press 2016.
In April 2018, on our neighbors' potted Aloe, I found a group of sleeping males of another Ancylandrena species Ancylandrena rozeni.
This species was first found described in the Tucson Mountains. Mine were identified from my photos by John Ascher.