Field of Science

Mooching Off the Relatives

Something I've referred to before but only (I think) in passing is that, among the enormous diversity of bees that inhabit this world, there are a large number of species that act as cleptoparasites*. That is, instead of constructing and provisioning their own nests, they lay their eggs in the nests of other bee species. When the eggs hatch, the emerging larvae feed on the provisions that the constructing bee intended for her own offspring. One lineage of these cleptoparasites is the megachilid genus Coelioxys.

*Depending on the source, you may see this term spelt as either 'cleptoparasite' or 'kleptoparasite'. Personally, I've never been able to decide just which I should be using.

Coelioxys sodalis, copyright jgibbs.

Coelioxys is a diverse, cosmopolitan genus with nearly 500 known species, closely related to the even more diverse leafcutter bees and resin bees of the genus Megachile. Species vary in size from half a centimetre to nearly an inch in length. They are fairly similar to species of Megachile in overall appearance, the most obvious difference being that (as with most cleptoparasitic bees) their covering of hair is greatly reduced. In particular, the dense scopa of hairs that covers the underside of the metasoma in female Megachile is absent. The primary function of the hairs in bees is to carry pollen; with no nest of their own to worry about, cleptoparasitic bees have no need for such dense hairs. Coelioxys females also differ from Megachile in the shape of the metasoma which is tapering and ends in a narrow tip. More on that in a moment.

As might be expected for such a large genus, Coelioxys has been divided between a number of subgenera. Until recently, the definitions of a number of these subgenera was somewhat uncertain. The biggest problem was that most revisions of the genus had been done on a regional level so (for instance) North American taxa were more finely subdivided than in the Old World. However, a recent phylogenetic analysis of the genus by da Rocha Filho & Packer (2017) redefined a number of subgenera and adjusted their definitions. For instance, the type subgenus Coelioxys, recognised as subcosmopolitan by Michener (2007), became restricted to just two species, the European C. quadridentata and the North American C. sodalis. Whereas Michener's concept of Coelioxys was essentially recognised by lacking the specialised features of other subgenera, the restricted Coelioxys sensu stricto can be recognised by having the outer margin of the pronotal lobe conspicuously rounded, as well as having the pilosity on the mesosoma suberect, long and thin, without spots of appressed hairs (da Rocha Filho & Packer 2017).

For the most part, Coelioxys species are cleptoparasites of Megachile though some have also been found mooching off Apidae species. Coelioxys quadridentata, for instance, has been found in association with nests of both Megachile and Anthophora. In most cases, a female Coelioxys will lay into a host nest before it is closed, while the constructor is away foraging for supplies. The narrow metasoma allows the Coelioxys to reach into the cavity containing the nest and insert her eggs into the nest wall where the host will not notice it. Often, multiple eggs will be laid in a single nest. After the nest is closed, the eggs hatch into larvae that look fairly unremarkable for their first one or two instars: like other bee larvae, not doing much more than sit there and eat. But upon reaching the second or third instar, the Coelioxys larva develops greatly enlarged mandibles that it uses to stir through the nest's food mass and execute any other larvae and eggs contained therein. Both the original host larva and any other Coelioxys larvae the nest may contain are dealt with in this manner (presumably the process of finding an appropriate host nest is difficult enough that the waste of eggs is still worth it for the parent Coelioxys to increase the chance that at least one reaches maturity). Its competitors thus removed, the larva them moults back to a more average form with nothing more agin to do but eat until the time to mature is reached.


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

Rocha Filho, L. C. da, & L. Packer. 2017. Phylogeny of the cleptoparasitic Megachilini genera Coelioxys and Radoszkowskiana, with the description of six new subgenera in Coelioxys (Hymenoptera: Megachilidae). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 180: 354–413.


  1. Couldn't help but think of the Plocamiaceae post and wonder whether Megachile may be paraphyletic, or even multiply paraphyletic, with respect to Coelioxys. Has there been any genetic study? Or are there morphological traits that make this very unlikely?

    1. Current indications (as found by the da Rocha Filho & Packer 2017 study) are that the parasitic megachilins are a single clade but whether that clade is sister to or derived from within Megachile is still uncertain.

      There are a lot of cleptoparasitic lineages among bees; some are close relatives of their hosts, others are independent lineages. I'm not aware off the top of my head of any polyphyletic cleptoparasitic groups. I think polyphyly may have been suggested in the past for the Psithyrus parasitic bumble bees (many of which mimic their host in appearance) but a quick google search indicates that this group is currently thought to be monophyletic (albeit a derived subgroup of regular bumble bees).


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