Great Carpenter Bee on Grewia occidentalis
Photo © Jenny Thynne
November 10, 2015 Invertebrates No Comments

Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) aruana and Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) lieftincki

Introduction

Great Carpenter Bee on Grewia occidentalis Photo © Jenny Thynne

Great Carpenter Bee on Grewia occidentalis
Photo © Jenny Thynne

Australia has more than 1600 species of native bees, among which some of the largest are the two groups of carpenter bees: Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) and Xylocopa (Lestis).  Species in the subgenus Lestis are metallic green in colour, while those in the subgenus Koptortosoma are coloured quite differently, as described below.

Carpenter bees are spread over a large part of the tropical and subtropical world. They are so named after their ability to carve nest burrows in timber or pithy stems using their strong ‘mandibles’ or jaws. In 1802, French entomologist Pierre André Latreille first described the genus whose name is derived from the Ancient Greekxylokopos/ξũλοκóπος, ‘wood-cutter’.

Great Carpenter Bee on adult’s index finger Photo © Jenny Thynne

While most Australian carpenter bees are not threatened or endangered, they are of interest due to their spectacular appearance as well as their role as pollinators.  Along with a few other groups of bees, they possess the ability to ‘buzz pollinate’, as outlined below.

There are eight species of carpenter bees found in Australia; however, this profile focuses on Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) aruana and Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) lieftincki.

Description

Bees in the Koptortosoma subgenus

Females – The females have a glossy black abdomen and their thorax is covered with bright yellow fur except for a small black oval at its centre.  They can grow up to 23mm in body length.  As the gatherers of pollen for their young, the females are more often seen than the males.  They make a loud buzzing sound when visiting flowers, and on occasion, have been mistaken for the introduced bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) which grows to a similar size.  The latter, however, is currently confined to Tasmania where it was unintentionally introduced in the 1990s.

Males – The males are very different from the females in appearance, with yellowy-brown or olive fur covering most of their bodies. They can grow up to 26mm in length and do not sting.


Left: Female Great Carpenter Bee; Right: Male Great Carpenter Bee in nest hole
Photo © Marc Newman                                                   Photo © Laurence Sanders

Females and males both have wings of a smoky colour.

Distinction of the two species

Female Great Carpenter Bee approaching nest site in dead tree Photo © Laurence Sanders

It wasn’t until 1997 that X.(K.) lieftincki was recognised as a separate species from X.(K.) aruana thanks to research by Dr Remko Leys of the South Australian Museum.  The distinction was discovered by microscopic comparison of various characteristics of the males, as the females appear to be virtually identical.

Habitat

Carpenter bee nests are found in soft, dry pithy stems or decayed wood (including old timbers in backyards).  Known nesting trees and shrubs include: Casuarinas,Ficus species, Lophostemon grandiflorus, Terminalia catana, Annona muricata (soursop tree), dead branches on mango, frangipani and jacaranda trees, deadEucalyptus robusta saplings, banksias and leptospermumspecies, and dead flower stalks of grass trees (Xanthorrhoea species).  They are found in a range of environments such as open forest, agricultural and urban areas.

Breeding

Female Great Carpenter Bee working on nest hole Photos © Laurence Sanders

Female great carpenter bees are attracted to the males when they detect the strong scent of a ‘pheromone’ or chemical perfume released by the males.  The males establish individual territories, usually high in the tree canopy, which is also why they are seldom seen.

The females burrow out the nests, some of which may consist of a number of tunnels. They lay eggs on individual mounds of honey and pollen which are sealed with chewed wood particles, thus forming the brood cells.  Females of subsequent generations have been known to occupy the same nest, and adult female carpenter bees may even feed their adult daughters. For this reason, carpenter bees are sometimes referred to as ‘para-social’, unlike the vast majority of Australia’s native bees which lead a solitary existence.

Diet

Female Great Carpenter Bee on Callerya megasperma Photo © Jenny Thynne

Some plants store their pollen inside their saclike anthers which are usually tubular in shape with a small opening or pore at the top. A specific technique is required of insects wishing to collect this pollen. Some of our Australian native bees, including carpenter bees, use this technique known as ‘buzz pollination’ or ‘sonication’. The majority of native bees and the introduced honey bee (Apis mellifera) are not capable of performing the technique.

The female carpenter bee lands on the flower, curls herself around the anthers and vigorously vibrates her flight muscles while buzzing loudly. The frequency of the ‘buzz pollination’ wing action is different from that used for flying, and the sound made by each of the two can be easily distinguished. The rapid movements loosen the pollen which flows out through holes in the anthers in a fine spray and onto the bee’s body.

Plants that hide their pollen in this way include native wildflowers such as Senna, Hibbertia andDianella species, and commercial food crops such as tomatoes, capsicum, egg plants, chilli peppers, kiwifruit, blueberries and cranberries. Research is being conducted into the use of carpenter bees for passionfruit pollination.

Female Great Carpenter Bee flying towards its nest Photo © Malcolm Tattersall

Other known food plants include:

  • Australian natives: Callerya megasperma (native wisteria), Eucalyptus species, Jagera pseudorhus(foambark), Canavalia rosae, Cassia species
  • exotics: Grewia occidentalis (crossberry or lavender starflower), Tipuana species (a declared weed),Albizia species, Anacardium occidentale (cashew tree), Cajanus cajan (pigeon pea), Cassia fistula,Clitorea ternatea, Crotalaria, Hyptis, jasmines, laburnams, wisterias, Caesalpinia ferrea (leopard tree), Solanum species.

Other Australian native ‘buzz pollination’ experts are teddy bear bees (Amegilla bombiformis) and blue banded bees (Amegilla species).

Distribution

Great carpenter bees prefer a warm climate.  Both X. aruana and X. lieftincki occur in the Northern Territory, Queensland and northern parts of New South Wales and Western Australia (in the Kimberleys). X. aruana also occurs in New Guinea. The distribution of both bees overlaps to some degree; however, X. lieftincki is usually found further inland than X. aruana, and is confined to Australia.


Left: Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) aruana Right: Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) lieftincki

 

Conservation

Status of X.(K.) aruana and X.(K.) lieftincki:

  • Queensland: least concern
  • National: least concern
  • IUCN: least concern.

Publications

  • Leys, R. (2000), A revision of the Australian carpenter bees, genus Xylocopa Latreille,
    subgenera Koptortosoma Gribodo and Lestis Lepeletier & Serville
    (Hymenoptera : Apidae), Invertebrate Taxonomy; 14 (1) 115 – 136
  • Introduction to Australian Native Bees – second edition Australian Native Bee Research Centre
  • Heard, T. (1998) Carpenter bees and the pollination of passionfruit. Aussie Bee 8: 6-7
  • 8 November 1998 – Aussie Bee Research Centre:
    The Great Carpenter Bees – the largest bees in Australia. Aussie Bee 8: 4-5
  • Liddell, Henry George and Robert Scott (1980),  A Greek-English Lexicon (Abridged Edition), United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. p.472.  ISBN 0-19-910207-4

Information and Resources

Written by Wildlifeqld