‘Ant-Like’ Bee Species Found in Desert Southwest

Utah State University entomologist Zach Portman reports nine, newly identified species of desert bees of the genus Perdita, including two species of ant-like males (pictured), which are completely different in appearance from their mates. (Photo: Zach Portman)

(CN) – The males of two newly identified species of bees closely resemble ants, and the researchers that discovered them aren’t sure why.

Published in the most recent edition of the journal Zootaxia, the team presents its findings on the new species, which are part of the Perdita genus – a diverse group of bees found throughout the American Southwest and nearby parts of Mexico. While these bees aren’t major pollinators of agricultural crops, they play an important role in the region’s natural ecosystems.

Recent genetic studies have revealed ants and bees are closely related, and the new species, P. prodigiosa and P. pilonatata, could serve as evidence.

But despite the similarities between ants and bees, discovering male bees with ant-like heads is surprising, and the team says their physical appearance could stem from their role within a colony.

“It’s unclear why these males have this unique form, but it could indicate they spend a lot of time in the nest,” said study co-author Zach Portman, an entomologist at Utah State University. “We may find more information as we learn more about their nesting biology.”

Portman tracks them by watching for their buzzing shadows in the blindingly bright midday sunlight the bees generally favor.

“Their activity during the hottest part of the day may be a way of avoiding predators,” he said. “They appear to be important pollinators of desert plants commonly known as ‘crinklemats.’”

Crinklemats are part of the Tiquilia genus of desert plants, which grow low to the ground and feature ridged leaves and tiny trumpet-shaped blue blossoms.

“Like the bees, Tiquilia flowers are very small,” Portman said. “The bees must squeeze into the long, narrow corollas and dunk their heads into the flowers to extract the pollen.” A video of the bees collecting pollen can be seen here.

The female bees use pollen from the flowers to build-up a supply to nourish their young, laying their eggs on the stash and leaving their offspring to fend for themselves.

In addition to looking like ants, Portman said the new species have also developed a “hair basket” – inward-facing, hooked hairs that allow them to collect pollen as they dive into a flower.

“We don’t know yet if the bees use their legs to scoop pollen into the basket or if they simply collect it using their heads,” he said. “There’s still a lot of unknowns.”