Field of Science

Small Carpenters

It's time for another dip into the wide diversity of bees. The small carpenter bees of the tribe Ceratinini are small (often less than a centimetre in length), slender bees found on all continents except Antarctica, though their toehold in Australia is a very tenuous one indeed with only a single known species there. Though diverse, with hundreds of known species, the difficulty of breaking the tribe into clearly defined, monophyletic groups has lead recent authors to recognise a single genus Ceratina (Michener 2007). Distinctive subgroups previously treated as separate genera, such as the relatively large Megaceratina and the heavily punctate Ctenoceratina of Africa, and the both bright metallic and heavily punctate Pithitis of Africa and southern and eastern Asia, are now treated as subgenera. There are a lot of recognised subgenera, over twenty at last count, but there are also a lot of species not yet assigned to subgenus. Phylogenetic analysis of the ceratinins supports monophyly of most subgenera and a likely African origin for the clade as a whole, with multiple dispersals into Eurasia followed by a single dispersal to the Americas (Rehan & Schwarz 2015).

Ceratina sp., possibly C. smaragdula, copyright Vengolis.

Distinctive features of Ceratina compared to other bees include the absence of a pygidial plate, a flattened and hardened patch on the tip of the abdomen in females. As members of the family Apidae, Ceratina are long-tongued bees with a scopa (cluster of pollen-carrying hairs) on the hind legs, though the scopa does not enclose a bare patch for carrying a shaped pollen ball as in some other apids (for instance, the familiar honey bees). The scopa is less extensive in small carpenter bees than it is in other apids and the hairs on the body as a whole are rather short, so Ceratina look much shinier and less fuzzy than other bees. Ceratina are black or metallic green in colour (on rare occasions, the metasoma is red) and usually have yellow patches, particularly on the face.

Ceratina nest in a fennel stem, copyright Gideon Pisanty.

The name 'carpenter bee' refers to their practice of nesting in hollow stems or twigs, entered at broken ends. The absence of the pygidial plate is probably related to this manner of nesting: it is normally used by ground-nesting bees to tamp down soil when closing the nest. Most of the time, Ceratina are solitary nesters but two or more females may sometimes work on a nest together. In these cases, they adopt a proto-eusocial division of labour with one female laying eggs while the others act as 'workers' (I have no idea how they decide who gets to do what). Though a reduction in hairiness in bees is often associated with kleptoparasitism, no Ceratina species are known to behave in that manner (though some kleptoparasites are known among the members of the closely related and very similar tribe Allodapini). The reduction of the scopa may instead be associated with the bees carrying food supplies for the nest in their crop as well as on the legs. Cells are lined up in the nest stem with only simple partitions between them. These partitions are made from loose particles, mostly the pith of the stem, with no obvious adhesive holding them together. In at least some species, females will return to the nest after completion, dissembling and reassembling cell walls in order to clean out dead larvae and faeces that are then incorporated into the partitions. As such, while small carpenter bees are not directly on the evolutionary line leading to the more integrated colonies of the social bees, they do provide us with a model of what one stage in their evolution may have looked like.


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

Rehan, S., & M. Schwarz. 2015. A few steps forward and no steps back: long-distance dispersal patterns in small carpenter bees suggest major barriers to back-dispersal. Journal of Biogeography 42: 485–494.


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