The Copycat Bee
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Common throughout the mid to southeastern United States, the carpenter-mimic bee (or copycat bee) has earned its name.
By: Anita B. Stone Interest in North American native bees has increased exponentially in recent years due, in part, to an overall upsurge in attentiveness to environmental conditions as well as to specific concerns about the decline of pollinators.
The recent alarming decrease in honey bee activity has focused on native bees, especially their diversity and often-overlooked amazing abilities as pollinators. One interesting category of our wild bees is the industrious leafcutter bees. These bees are hard workers and do their share of pollinating both native plants and crops. They are solitary bees, as are most native bees, and carry out their life cycles as loners, creating their nests to assure the continuation of their species.
Unlike approximately 70% of all native bees, leafcutters do not nest in the ground but are “cavity nesters.” They search out unique spaces and construct their nests assembled from pieces of leaves and petals chewed from whatever appropriate plants are available, preferably choosing soft, flexible leaves, such as rose petals. Once a nest location is chosen, the bees arrange the leaf sections into architecturally precise nests, using remarkable skill and patience.
Of the approximately 242 species of leafcutter bees in the United States, one is distinguishable from other bees visiting flowers. The “copycat” bee.
Common throughout the mid to southeastern United States, the carpenter-mimic bee (or copycat bee) has earned its name. The carpenter-mimic bee, Megachile Xylocopoides, is a rather large bee, shiny black with a large head and an overall boxy, rectangular shape, resembling the slightly larger carpenter bee.
Male carpenter-mimic bees may show some color with light-colored hairs on the thorax and head, but the female looks nearly hairless blue-black with bluish, iridescent wings. The term xylocopoides refers to its likeness to the carpenter bee. The genus, Megachile, translates to “big lipped,” referencing that leafcutter bees have enlarged, powerful, and snipper-like mandibles, enabling their leaf-cutting ability.
Leafcutters don’t use the leaves for food but rather for their nest construction. Despite the name, the carpenter-mimic bee’s lifestyle and nesting behavior are very different from that of the carpenter bees, which belong to a different genus. Like other leafcutters, carpenter-mimic bees carry leaf fragments beneath their bodies to the nesting location. However, they differ from others of their genus in that they don’t look for ready-made or tubular-shaped cavity sites but will accept much less well-defined openings. Someone found a carpenter-mimic bee among letters standing in a mailbox in one case.
The female will, like all leafcutters, build a singular column of connected cells by precisely measuring and assembling an arrangement of overlapping leaf fragments, sometimes taking several hours on one cell.
Each cell holds one egg and food provisions of pollen and nectar, which is tamped down and sealed before the next cell’s construction begins. The larvae go through several developmental stages while in the cell before pupating and eventually chewing their way to freedom.
The ambient temperature determines when bees pupate. Leafcutter bees in warmer climates may produce more than one generation per year. Males emerge first, then females follow. After mating, females begin looking for nesting sites of their own. Females store sperm until the time of egg-laying and use it to determine the sex of their offspring.
Carpenter-mimic bees are non-aggressive and rarely sting. They react to the presence of large intruders by approaching fearlessly and assessing the situation in what might seem a menacing manner but do not attack.
Leafcutter bees are not social and don’t have guard bees to defend the nest. One female protects her offspring from predators, weather, and parasites as best she can.
Female carpenter-mimic bees are active foragers and carry pollen in the same, but unusual, manner as other leafcutter bees, under their abdomen were hairs, sometimes called a pollen brush, accumulate the pollen grains for transport.
All carpenter-mimic bees enjoy members of the Aster family as their preferred food sources. Female bees forage from March to November in the southern areas of their range, and from May to September father north.
The scientific community has only recently turned its microscope on North America’s native bees. So much is unknown about their habits and survival status. Many unstudied species remain, with 10% still to be categorized and most likely several undiscovered. Because of its easy identification, you will be able to tell if this friendly, hard-working “copycat” carpenter-mimic bee has chosen your area in which to stake its future. This bee has been described by writer Alexander Key, as “a happy industrious denizen of the magic meadow.”
ANITA B. STONE is an eco-friendly journalist who nourishes her traditional habit of nature and horticulture. Her love of the land and passion for teaching at the local community college and at senior retirement centers fills her time. She is always searching for new methods of improving the environment, growing food to benefit people, domestic animals, and wildlife. She is an author and Master Gardener in North Carolina, teaching others how to farm sensibly, making life easier and fulfilling, and admits she will always stay young-at-heart, just like her grandchildren.
Originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.