ID GUIDE TO WILD BEES - NEW YORK

MELISSODES LONG-HORNED BEES

LONG-HORNED BEES comprise the bee tribe called Eucerini and have unusually long antennae – hence the name long-horned.  Eucerini serve as essential pollinators for multi-million-dollar crop industries.  They include, among others, Peponapis squash bees, key pollinators of melons and squash; and Svastra sunflower bees, instrumental in sunflower production.  The tribe Eucerini also includes Melissodes long-horned bees, a genus of  irreplaceable pollinators of garden flowers, native wildflowers and sunflower crops.

 

Melissodes long-horned bees look like furry Chinese dragons.  They are robust, medium-sized bees with hairy heads, bodies and back legs.  Males generally have much longer antennae than females, and both genders may have striking green or blue-gray eyes. In our area, Melissodes long-horns tend to emerge in the mornings and early afternoons during July and August. 

 

All Melissodes bees are ground-nesters.  They bees carve holes in the earth, where they construct individual nests containing brood cells lined with a waxlike material, each holding one egg and a single pollen ball.  The nests, which may be isolated or built in  groups, are often hidden under brush.  Thus, Melissodes long-horns are most easily spotted while away from their nests, foraging for nectar and pollen.

 

The genus Melissodes is represented by several different subgenera (subgenuses) within the United States.   Three of these are found in Rockefeller State Park and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture - Eumelissodes, Heliomelissodes and Melissodes.  Six distinct species representing these subgenera are found below.


 

Thistle Long-horned Bee

Melissodes desponsus (Subgenus Heliomelissodes)
2/5" - 5/8" (medium-sized)

All of the long-horned bees shown above belong to the subgenus Eumelissodes, also known as “true long-horned bees”.  The thistle long-horned bee, however, belongs to a different group  --  the small subgenus Heliomelissodes, which has only two bee members worldwide, and only one in the northeastern United States.  According to entomologist Charles D. Michener, bees of this subgenus are distinguished by the distinctive qualities of their faces.  On Heliomelissodes bees, the “clypeus” (the part of the bee’s face just above its jaws) is protuberant; and the “labrum” (the bee's "upper lip" or part of the face between the jaws) is entirely black.  These traits can be observed in the photo strip at right.

Melissodes desponsus long-horned bees are oligoletic, specializing principally on thistles, which belong to the plant family Asteracae.  The bees' dependence on thistles makes their continued existence in some environments precarious.  Other efficient pollinators, such as bumble bees and honey bees, also forage on thistles and may compete for their pollen and nectar.  In many parts of New York, thistles bloom in August, a month when droughts are common and when alternate pollen sources dry up.  Thus, competition among bee species may be particularly fierce during the period when thistle long-horns are feeding. Without an abundance of thistles in a habitat, thistle long-horned bees may struggle for survival.

​Thistle long-horned bees forage at times on other plants. The bees shown here were found feeding on thistles, and on ironweed, a member of the same plant family.  According to the Discover Life database, thistle long-horned bees also feed on blanket flower and goldenrod (both in the Asteraceae family). 

The nests of these long-horn bees are parasitized by the Triepeolus donatus cuckoo bee. 

​​Identification information:  Melissodes desponsus bees can be mistaken easily for bumble bees.  Thistle longhorns have robust bodies, black abdomens and thick pale yellow-brown hair covering their thoraxes.  Female Melissodes desponsus bees, however, are distinguishable, because they have bushy, pale-gold scopal hairs on their hind legs. 

 

The legs of male thistle long-horned bees are covered entirely with black hairs -- a trait shared by bumble bee species of our area.  Male thistle long-horned bees, nonetheless, have very long antennae, a characteristic that helps distinguish them from bumble bees.  The yellow clypeuses of male thistle long-horned bees are also easily perceived by the naked eye.

 

Both female and yellow thistle long-horned bees have dark gray eyes.

Taxonomy of Thistle Long-horned Bees

Order:   Hymenoptera
Family:   Apidae
Subfamily:   Apinae
Tribe:  Eucerini  (Long-horned Bees)
Genus:   Melissodes
Subgenus:  Heliomelissodes
Species:  Melissodes desponsa

Melissodes desponsus  (male)

At Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, two varieties of specialist long-horned bees can be found energetically visiting sunflowers in the vegetable fields during July and August:  Melissodes agilis and Melissodes trinodis.  

 

Sunflowers are particularly attractive nectar and pollen sources for bees.  A sunflower is actually a collection of tiny flowers -- each sunflower blossom consists of many tightly-packed tubular florets filled with pollen and nectar.  A single sunflower may have thousands of florets.  This structure allows bees to move efficiently from one pollen source to another without between-flower flights.  The broad landing pad of a sunflower also provides a place where bees can rest between pollen-gathering stints. 

 

Melissodes agilis.  Melissodes agilis (shown above right) is also known by the common name "agile long-horned bee".  This true long-horned bee has a thorax covered with off-white hairs and pale stripes on its abdomen. Males have green eyes and long reddish antennae. Females have shorter antennae and blue-gray eyes. According to entomologist Charles D. Michener,  M. agilis females have especially feathery hairs on their hind legs and males have a white or pale yellow clypeus (the facial plate above the bee's jaws).  The bases of the male bees' jaws are also predominantly yellow.

Males of this species can be found on July and August mornings at Stone Barns, flying rapidly from one sunflower to the next, rarely alighting in one place for long.  Male bees engaged in this behavior are patrolling for mates.  Female M. agilis are more likely to be found foraging for an extended period on a single flower, loading their back legs with pollen. 

Although at Stone Barns agile long-horned bees are found primarily on sunflowers, these bees are also documented pollinators of other members of the Asteraceae family such as chrysanthemums and gumweed. 

 

Melissodes trinodis.  The second bee shown at right is the very similar half-inch Melissodes trinodis.  This robust bee has a thorax covered with light-brown or rust-colored hair.   Males have green eyes and long antennae; females have gray-blue eyes and thick scopal hairs on their hind legs.  Typically, females of this species appear on sunflowers with the scopae of their back legs heavily laden with yellow pollen. They often commingle in groups of several female bees spread across the large surface of a single sunflower. 

 

M. trinodis and M. agilis bees may be difficult to tell apart with the naked eye.  Viewed minutely, the two species can be distinguished by a handful of traits, illustrated in the photo strip at right:  M. trinodis are generally smaller; they frequently have a rust-colored cast to their thorax hairs;  their wing veins are darker than those of M. agilis; the rims of the abdominal segments of M. trinodis are a dark transparent brown, while those of M. agilis are clear;  the abdominal bands of M. trinodis may have an orange tint; and the mandible coloration and size of antennae segments differ in males of the two species.

Melissodes trinodis  bees at Stone Barns are found nearly exclusively on sunflowers, but are known to pollinate black-eyed Susans and pumpkins as well.

The robust Melissodes bimaculatus bee, known under the common name "two spotted long-horned bee" belongs to the subgenus Melissodes --  a different subgenus than any of the other long-horned bees shown on this guide page. Unlike the Eumelissodes and Heliomelissodes bees featured above, which prefer pollinating plants of the Asteraceae family, two-spotted long-horned bees are generalist pollinators that forage on a range of plants. 

 

Identification information:  These beautiful bees are coal-black -- so dark that on sunny days,  it is difficult to discern more than the bees' dark silhouettes when they land on brightly-colored flowers.  On closer inspection, you will see that Melissodes bimaculataus have black wings, dark antennae and dark blue-gray eyes.  Females have ostentatious rear legs adorned with long, feathery pale-yellowish-brown hairs, often heavily laden with pollen.  Their other legs are black and covered with thick dark hair.

 

The name "two-spotted longhorn" comes from the fact that the female bees have two pale spots on the tips of their abdomens (as shown in the photo strip at right).  Males lack the spots.  On males, the clypeus (the part of the face below the antennae) and the labrum (the lower part of the face, between the mandibles) are yellowish-white.  Male bees have long reddish antennae, and reddish lower legs and feet.  Their hind legs are partly dark, and partly-covered with pale hairs (a trait that helps distinguish them from the dark male thistle long-horned bee shown above, which has entirely dark legs).

Two-spotted long-horned bees are solitary ground-nesters.  They are industrious foragers, often the first to arrive on blossoms in the morning.   They are considered one of the three most important pollinators of cotton. (The other two are honey bees and common eastern bumble bees.)  They are also significant pollinators of pumpkins, cucumbers and watermelons, and are reportedly more efficient pollinators of watermelon than honey bees. 

Two-spotted long-horned bees are important pollinators of hardscrabble wildflowers such as bugloss, dandelions, panicledleaf ticktrefoil, thistles and the beautiful blue chicory that grows throughout the park in sunny areas. The bees pollinate many garden flowers as well, including cosmos, coneflowers, agastache and monarda. Melissodes bimaculataus bees appear in pumpkin, cucumber and flower plantings of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in late summer.  The bee shown here was found feeding in mid-August on zinnias in Stone Barns’ flower garden.

Taxonomy of Two-Spotted- Long-horned Bees

Order:   Hymenoptera
Family:   Apidae
Subfamily:   Apinae
Tribe:  Eucerini  (Long-horned Bees)
Genus:   Melissodes
Subgenus:  Melissodes
Species:  Melissodes  bimaculatus

A  female two-spotted long-horned bee on a zinnia, her back legs heavily laden with yellow pollen

Two-spotted Long-horned Bee

Melissodes bimaculatus  (Subgenus Melissodes)
Medium-sized  (.43 - .55 inches)

Melissodes desponsus  (female)

All photos (c) 2014 - 2016 Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

All photos (c) 2014 - 2016 Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

A female true long-horned bee on a rudbeckia

Melissodes Subillata Long-horned Bee

Melissodes subillatus (Subgenus Eumelissodes)
1/3" - 1/2" (medium-sized)

Of all the bees in this guide, this one seems the most obscure:  as of spring, 2016, no information on the behavior of Melissodes subillatus is currently available on the Internet; few pictures of live examples appear on the Web;  and the bee is not even mentioned in Charles D. Michener's compendious The Bees of This World. Even the bee's name seems intended to relegate it to the barely-worth-mentioning status:  subillatus means "imperfectly illatus" or "not really quite illata," an apparent reference to another, earlier-discovered long-horned bee called Melissodes illatus.

This is unfortunate because this is a stunning bee.  Males have extravagantly long reddish antennae, yellow masks on their faces and smoky-blue eyes.  The male Melissodes subillata shown here was sleeping while hanging in a daredevil way from its jaws on a flower stem.

 

The Discover Life database records that, like other true long-horned bees of the subgenus Eumelissodes shown on this page, Melissodes subillatus bees are principally pollinators of plants in the Asteraceae family. The male bee shown here was gathering nectar from coreopsis, a member of that family. The Discover Life database has documented Melissodes subillatus females pollinating a range of flowering Asteraceae --  including black-eyed Susans;  blanketflowers; blazing star;  cornflowers; the  hardscrabble perwinkle-blue chicory flower that grows along New York roadsides (Lactuca pulchella); chrysanthemums and asters; coneflowers; dandelions; Joe Pye weed; goldenrod; hawkweed; ironweed; and sunflowers.  Melissodes subillata bees also have been documented pollinating a narrow range of plants outside of the Asteracaea family, including  bellflowers, bindweed, germanders, milkweed and thistles.

Identification information:  The male bee shown here was small as long-horned bees go, barely 1/3" (not including its antennae)  -- although the Discover Life database records both males and females as reaching nearly 1/2" long.  The male bee shown in the photo strip at right has a hairy head and thorax and an abdomen striped with bands of long pale hairs.  Like other true long-horned bees of the subgenus Eumelissodes, the male Melissodes subillatus bee has a yellow clypeus.  A distinctive feature of this species, as shown at right, is that males additionally have a yellow dot on each side of their mandibles.  Another distinguishing trait of male M. subillatus is that it has thorax hairs that are dark as well as light. 

Females of this species have robust bodies, striped abdomens and bushy pale hairs on their hind legs.  Like the males, the females have blue-gray eyes.  They have shorter antennae than the males and lack the yellow clypeus.

 

Additional Web photographs of this species can be found at the  Packer Lab's  website featuring a key to the bees of Canada.  Helpful photographs are also available on the Discover Life Database.

Melissodes subillatus  (male)

All photos (c) 2014 - 2016 Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

Melissodes Denticulatus Long-horned Bee

Melissodes denticulatus  (Subgenus Eumelissodes)
1/3" - 2/5" (medium-sized)

Melissodes denticulatus, a species of true long-horned bee, is found at the park in late summer. This bee is a specialist pollinator that prefers feeding on the nectar and pollen of Ironweed (Vernonia), a plant with deep purple flowers, native to New York, that blooms in August.  Ironweed belongs to the botanical family Asteraceae, the plant group most frequently visited by Melissodes bees.

Many of the bees shown here were found gathering nectar from a native species of ironweed that grows as tall as nine feet high, known as giant ironweed (Vernonia gigantea).  Despite the fact that Melissodes denticulatus bees feed almost exclusively on ironweed, the Discover Life database has documented them foraging on other flowers as well.  These include rudbeckia, centauraea, goldenrod, penstamon, veronica and cucurbits. In July and August of  2016, and 2017, Melissodes denticulatus long-horned bees appeared in large numbers feeding on coneflowers in the Visitor's Center garden of Rockefeller State Park Preserve.

 

Identification information:   This long-horned bee is very fast and  tends to alight only briefly on blossoms.  When viewed from afar or in flight, Melissodes denticulatus bees have an overall grayish cast.   Viewed more minutely,  they have a robust shape; a black thorax covered with pale brownish-gray hairs; a black abdomen striped with pale hair bands; transparent brown wings with dark veins; and striking bluish-gray eyes.  The bees shown here were relatively small for long-horned bees, rarely appearing more than 1/3" in length -- although the Discover Life database records the species as reaching larger sizes.

Female Melissodes denticulatus long-horned bees have bushy pale scopal hairs on their back legs.  Males have long reddish antennae.  A distinguishing characteristic of males of this bee species is that they have a black strip on the top portion of a creamy-white clypeus (the part of the face just above the bee's jaws), visible in the photos at right.  In addition, it is notable that males as well as females of this species have blue-gray eyes.

 

A note on similar species that feed on ironweed:  Melissodes denticulatus is the single northeastern long-horned bee species that specializes in pollinating ironweed.  A second long-horned bee that is a specialist feeder on ironweed exists in the midwestern and southern United States -- Melissodes vernoniae.  Images of a live specimen of that bee unfortunately are not available on central web databases such as bug.guide.net and Discover life.  Melissodes vernoniae is larger than M. denticulatus and its wings, legs and jaws have a rust-red tint.  It , too,is a true long-horned bee belonging to the subgenus Eumelissodes.  The thistle long-horned bee  and Melissodes subillata shown below also feed occasionally on ironweed. 

Melissodes denticulatus  (female)

Melissodes denticulatus  (male)

All photos (c) 2014 - 2016 Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

Long-horned Bee Sunflower Pollinators

Melissodes trinodis  &  Melissodes agilis

(Subgenus Eumelissodes)
1/3" - 3/5" (medium-sized)

 An Agile Long-horned Bee (male) on a sunflower
size:  females 2/5"-  3/5"; males 1/3" - 1/2"

A Melissodes trinodis (female) on a sunflower
size:  females 2/5"-  1/2"; males 1/3" - 2/5"

True Long-horned Bees

(Melissodes Subgenus Eumelissodes spp.)
1/3" - 3/5" (medium-sized)

Eumelissodes or True Long-horned Bees:  The largest subgenera of New York's Melissodes long-horned bees is Eumelissodes, known by the common name “true long-horned bees”. 

 

True long-horned bees are about the size of a honey bee, or slightly smaller or slightly larger.  They have hairy faces and thoraxes (mid-sections), and their abdomens are typically dark and striped with pale bands of hair.  Male and female true long-horned bees differ somewhat in appearance:  the males have long antennae or  “horns,"  while the females have short antennae.  Females have long hairs known as scopae on their legs, used  for transporting pollen.  Males sip nectar from flowers but do not gather pollen and hence lack scopae.

 

The three true long-horned bees shown at right are fairly representative of their subgenus -- robust and hairy,  with banded abdomens.  All are between 1/3" and 1/2"  in length.  True long-horned bee species vary in  the color of their wings, hair, eyes, legs and antennae.  The bees here, for example, have hair that runs from white to pale brown to  grayish; their eyes range from green to gray to blue-gray; and the antennae of the top two are black, while those of the last bee are reddish-brown.

In The Bees of the World, entomologist Charles D. Michener notes two distinguishing traits of true long-horned bees, both of which are linked to gender.  The scopae of female Eumelissodes longhorns are feathery, as shown on the bee at top right.  The clypeus of male true long-horned bees is distinctively yellow or white, as shown in the photoshtrip below.  (The clypeus is the face part above the bee's mandibles.)

 

There are many species of true long-horned bees in the park and Stone Barns and at least 11 documented species in New York State.  Four true long-horned bee species are represented directly below on this guide page:  Melissodes agilis, Melissodes trinodis, Melissodes denticulata and Melissodes subillata. 

 

 

 

Taxonomy of True Long-horned Bees

 

Order:   Hymenoptera
Family:   Apidae
Subfamily:   Apinae
Tribe:  Eucerini  (Long-horned Bees)
Genus:   Melissodes
Subgenus: 
Eumelissodes  (True Long-horned Bees) 

 

 

 

Long-horned Bees and Pollinator-attracting Plants:

 

True long-horned bees may be either generalist pollinators that feed on a range of flowering plants, or specialists that focus on particular plant varieties.  Many true long-horned bees favor flowers within the Asteracae family.  These include, among others, sunflowers, coneflowers, zinnias, rudbeckia, goldenrod, dahlias, strawflowers,  cosmos, chamomile, thistles, ironweed and purple asters. 

 

The flower gardens at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture are particularly well-suited for sustaining a diversity of true long-horned bee species, because the gardens contain multiple flowering plant species of the Asteracae family.  Part of Stone Barns' principal flower garden is shown at right.

True Longhorned Bee - Melissodes Eumelissodes (c) Copyright 2015 Sharp-Eatman Photo

A male true long-horned bee on a coneflower

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REFERENCES:  For a comprehensive list of references used in compiling this guide, click here: 

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