Has anyone ever said to you, “You’ve got to see this blue bee!” If I had never seen one before, I would have thought they were made up. After all, bees are famously yellow and black, right? In fact, naturalist poet Emily Dickinson paid homage to their golden yellow rings in her popular poem that begins, “Bees are Black, with Gilt Surcingles, Buccaneers of Buzz…” (I know because I memorized this poem in fifth grade!)
But it’s very possible that in her day, living in New England, Emily never came across a blue bee. I am certain if she had, she would have written a poem in homage to them. Yes, they are that spectacular. So, naturally, they are worth learning more about. Here are some interesting facts and frequently asked questions about blue bees.
Is there really a blue bee?
Not only is there a blue bee, there are actually several species of blue bees! Though the amount of blue in each bee varies.
What kind of bee is blue?
Here are some species of bees that are blue:
- Osmia lignaria is commonly known as the blue orchard bee, blue orchard mason bee, or simply the orchard mason bee.
- Osmia calaminthae is commonly known as the blue calamintha bee or simply the calamintha bee.
- Amegilla cingulate is commonly known as the blue-banded bee.
- Xylocopa caerulea is known as the blue carpenter bee. This bee has some variations, for instance, Xylocopa violacea is the violet carpenter bee and Xylocopa aerate is the green carpenter bee.
- Thyreus nitidulus is known as the neon cuckoo bee.
Here are some details on these blue bees:
1. Blue Orchard Bee or Orchard Mason Bee (Osmia Lignaria)
The blue orchard bee is a solitary bee that is native to the United States and Canada. They are typically an iridescent bluish-gray color. Sometimes they’re so dark that people mistake them for large horse flies.
- Natural habitat: Woodlands and forest edges throughout Canada and the United States
- What they pollinate: Flowers on fruit-bearing bushes and trees, including apple, pear, and cherry trees, as well as blueberry bushes
- Threats: Disruption of their natural habitat, invasive bee species that carry pathogens, as well as pesticides
- Conservation status: 27% of the 139 native species of orchard bees in North America are at risk.
As their name implies, these bees are excellent pollinators of fruit-bearing bushes and trees. In addition, they are known to pollinate almond trees.
2. Blue Calamintha Bee (Osmia Calaminthae)
The blue calamintha bee was recently rediscovered in the Lake Wales Sand Ridge in central Florida. Entomologists feared the species was extinct, so their rediscovery was front-page news across the U.S. and the source of many social media shares. In 2019, the blue calamintha was listed in Florida’s 2019 State Wildlife Action Plan as a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need.”
- Natural habitat: Lake Wales Ridge, Highlands County, Florida, USA
- What they pollinate: Ashe’s savory flowers, also known as Ashe’s calamint (Calamintha ashei)
- Threats: Human development in their very limited natural habitat, pesticide drift, recreational ATVs, fires
- Conservation status: Critically imperiled
The blue calamintha is a delicate species because they have a limited habitat and a limited diet. They feed on a flower called Ashe’s Calamint (Calamintha ashei). Urban development and citrus farms have impacted these bees’ natural habitat, causing them to teeter on the brink of extinction.
Here’s a video with Chase Kimmel, a researcher at the Florida Natural Museum of History talking about finding the blue calamintha bee:
The blue calamintha is a solitary bee, meaning scientists have never found any hives where they might live in colonies.
Conservationists are working hard to get them listed on the Endangered Species List, so both the bees and their habitat will be better protected.
3. Blue-banded Bee or Metallic Blue Bee (Amegilla Cingulate)
Native to Australia, the blue-banded bee is known for its blue metallic and black-striped body. They are incredibly important when it comes to food production in Australia. In fact, these bees pollinate 30 percent of the crops there, including tomatoes, kiwi fruit, peppers, blueberries, and eggplant, as well as wild flowers.
- Natural habitat: Gardens, forests, open woodlands, and heathlands in Australia (except not in Tasmania or the Northern Territory), as well as Asia-Pacific countries, including East Timor, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea
- What they pollinate: Tomatoes, kiwi fruit, peppers, blueberries, and eggplant, as well as Sweet Alison, Lantana Camara, Common Ragwort, and other wild flowers, including the Matted Flax-lily (Dianella amoena), a critically-endangered plant
- Threats: Human activity, including clearing of river banks, which threatens nesting grounds, non-native bee species and non-native plants, and environmental changes from climate change
- Conservation status: Threatened, though more research needs to be done.
Blue-banded bees pollinate plants using a method called “buzz pollination.” In buzz pollination, the bee grabs onto a plant and moves their wing muscles extremely fast, which results in a buzzing sound. This movement shakes the pollen free, where it then clings to the bee’s body. (By contract, honey bees don’t rigorously beat their wings; instead loose pollen sticks to the hairs on their body.)
Buzz pollination is especially effective because it collects a lot of pollen and enables the bee to more easily cross-pollinate flowers. It’s also especially important because 8 percent of the Earth’s flowering plants depend heavily on buzz pollination.
Buzz pollination seems to yield larger, healthier crops too. It’s a skill that scientists cannot artificially reproduce in a lab. A study conducted by Adelaide University found that tomato plants that were pollinated by blue-banded bees using buzz pollination resulted in tomatoes that were 24 percent heavier than those buzzed with an electric wand.
Here’s a video from the Smithsonian Channel with slow-motion footage of bees performing buzz pollination:
Blue-banded bees are head bangers.
If there was a species of bee in the animalia kingdom that was a metal head, it would be the blue-banded bee. Not only do they vigorously flap their wings when pollinating, they also bang their heads about 350 times more than the average bee. This means these bees are not only more effective pollinators than other bees, they’re also faster.
4. Blue Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa Caerulea)
As their name implies, carpenter bees don’t live in a hive; they live in wood. They make their homes in dead trees or other wood (even manmade structures), as well as bamboo. Females will live in small groups that include mothers, daughters, and sisters. As generalists, they pollinate a wide range of plants.
The blue carpenter bee lives in Southeast Asia, India, and Southern China. They are non-aggressive, solitary bees. Besides the bright blue fuzz on their bodies, they are known to be relatively large at nearly 1 inch long (2.3 cm).
- Natural habitat: Southeast Asia, India, and Southern China
- What they pollinate: A range of flowers, using buzz pollination
- Threats: Pesticides and natural habitat destruction
- Conservation status: Relatively stable, but more research needs to be done.
5. Neon Cuckoo Bee (Thyreus nitidulus)
As their name implies, neon cuckoo bees have something in common with cuckoo birds. The opportunistic cuckoo bird is known to lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and let other birds feed their young. Similarly, the neon cuckoo bee will parasitize the nests of other bees, such as the blue banded bee. A female cuckoo bee will lay her eggs in the host bee’s nest. Then, when her young hatch, they kill the host bee’s larva and feed on the pollen that was collected by the host.
- Natural habitat: Urban areas, forests, woodlands, and heath in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, and the Northern Australia, as well as New Guinea and Southeast Asia
- What they pollinate: These bees actually do not collect pollen for their young, but they suck the nectar from a variety of flowers. They are generalists, but show a strong preference for Brazilian button flower (Centratherum punctatum).
- Threats: Loss of host nesting sites due to clearing of native vegetation and invasive plants, as well as pesticides
- Conservation status: There is not enough information on their status; more research needs to be done.
Why are blue bees blue?
I have yet to find a definitive answer as to why blue bees are blue. By some explanations, bees are like cats in that they can come in a variety of colors and patterns. Other explanations say it has to do with the types of flowers the bee pollinates. For example, the rare blue calamintha bee feeds mainly on a violet-colored flower.
An entomologist I asked on reddit explained it in a far more scientific way:
“Insects have layers in their exoskeleton, and in these layers are structures that reflect light. These structures, combined in the existing layers, are absorbing sunlight causing the insect itself to do something called sclerotization. This is basically tanning for the insect. It allows the cuticle (the outermost secretion over the entire insect) to harden up.
The coloring part is controlled by the level of tyrosine (an amino acid) in an insect cuticle and what pathway it goes to, being either a process of N-acetyl transferase or NBAD synthetase.
N-acetyl transferase makes NADA, which causes things to be straw colored or colorless, whereas NBAD causes things to darken. There’s often a certain level of mixing that goes on to help create the cool colors you see, but all that I described is just being refracted to your eyes and you’re perceiving it as such.
For example, you see a blue beetle. That’s the light bouncing off these structures and allowing you to see that specific wavelength of color, thanks to your eyes having light receptors and translating that to the brain.”
Are blue bees honey bees?
None of the species of blue bees described here are honey bees. Honey bees belong to the genus Apis. All honey bees share common traits, such as living in colonies with one queen bee. They also produce beeswax honeycombs, which hold larvae, honey, and pollen.
Honey bees are light brown in color with golden-yellow bands. (Xylocopa carpenter bees do make a kind of honey, but it’s more the consistency of wax, and not something that people find very tasty. I’m not sure about what bears think of it!)
Are blue bees bumble bees?
Bumble bees, which belong to the genus Bombus, also live in colonies, though their colonies are smaller than those of honey bees. Like honey bees, they also have one queen bee. They are large in size compared to other bees, sometimes surpassing 1 inch (0.4 cm). Bumble bees are yellow and black. And while the blue carpenter bee (genus Xylocopa) is large in size and fuzzy, they are not the same as bumble bees.
Ways You Can Help Blue Bees
As pollinators, bees are foundational to life on Earth. While scientists and conservationists are working to educate the public about the importance of bees and why we need to protect their natural habitats, there is still more research and outreach that needs to be done. If you care about bees, please do what you can to protect them. Here are some organizations that are doing that: