Field of Science

The Osmiin Mason Bees

As I'm sure I must have had cause to say before, the world of solitary bees is a spectacularly diverse. Literally tens of thousands of species have been described to date, and no doubt many more remain. The classification of bees was reviewed by in great detail by Charles Michener (2007) in his monumental Bees of the World, and it was there that I turned to learn about the subject of today's post, the osmiins.

Female Osmia ferruginea, copyright Gideon Pisanty.


The Osmiini are currently recognised as a tribe of the Megachilidae, one of the two families of long-tongued bees (the other is the Apidae, including, among others, the majority of social bees). Megachilids are most easily characterised by the position of the scopa, a dense array of hairs used by bees for carrying pollen. In most bees possessing a scopa (it tends to be reduced or lost in kleptoparasitic forms), it is located on the hind legs but in megachilids it covers the underside of the metasoma. Osmiins are distinguished from other megachilids by the combination of a well developed sting, elongate stigma on the fore wing, arolia between the claws, and the lack of a pygidial plate. They are often smaller bees, less than a centimetre in length, though the largest osmiins grow close to two centimetres. Some osmiins are also more or less metallic in coloration, an unusual condition for megachilids. No feature has been identified that is unique to osmiins as a whole and their monophyly relative to other megachilid tribes (particularly the Megachilini) has long been called into question. A number of authors have recognised a division of living osmiins between two subtribes, the Osmiina and Heriadina. Osmiina have generally been distinguished from Heriadina by features such as a smaller stigma in the fore wing, a mesopleuron (a plate forming much of the side of the mesosoma) that is shorter ventrally than dorsally, and a propodeum that generally slopes downward from the base (rather than being initially flat). Again, however, the validity of this division has been questioned as no one feature uniformly distinguishes the two groups. A phylogenetic analysis of the Megachilidae by Gonzalez et al. (2012) did not support monophyly for Osmiini or either of its subtribes, but a proper revision of the group's higher classification remains to be done.

Female Hoplitis parana, copyright Gideon Pisanty.


Like other solitary bees, osmiins nest in cavities (a handful are kleptoparasites that do not construct their own nests). They often do not construct these cavities themselves but occupy pre-existing ones such as abandoned beetle burrows and hollows in wood, or crevices between rocks. Some species of Osmia have a predilection for nesting in empty snail shells. Cells are most commonly demarcated in the nest by walls constructed of chewed leaves, often held together with a sticky substance such as mud, resin or (more rarely) nectar. In some cases, the amount of leaf material used is reduced or abandoned, so the cell walls are made entirely of mud or resin. In some European species of Hoplitis, the cells are lined with petals; the species H. papaveris, for instance, lines its cells with bright red poppy petals. Osmia brevicornis, a species found in southern Europe and central Asia, is unusual in that its nest is not divided into cells. Instead, the nest cavity (an abandoned beetle burrow) is uniformly packed with pollen, with eggs being progressively inserted into the pollen mass as it is laid down. The larvae feed on the pollen around them after they hatch, and cocoons end up randomly scattered through the remains of the mass as they mature.

REFERENCES

Gonzalez, V. H., T. Griswold, C. J. Praz & B. N. Danforth. 2012. Phylogeny of the bee family Megachilidae (Hymenoptera: Apoidea) based on adult morphology. Systematic Entomology 37: 261–286.

Michener, C. D. 2007. The Bees of the World 2nd ed. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.

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