Prior to studying bees, I thought that all bees were round, fuzzy, brightly colored creatures. As many readers will know by now, I was definitely mistaken! While bees come in many different colors and forms, the family Apidae (which includes our honey bees and bumble bees) does include a large number of rotund, fuzzy bee species. However, even in this family that includes such familiar members, there are many exceptions.
The photo above is a female small carpenter bee, Ceratina pacifica, collecting pollen from the blossoms of a California thistle. Measuring about 9mm, she is not actually all that small by the standard of bees (and certainly large compared to many of the other small carpenter bee species)—but she is certainly dwarfed by the large carpenter bees in the genus Xylocopa, which can attain the size of large grapes. As one may guess by their similar names, the small carpenter bee and the large carpenter bee are cousins—they are both in the subfamily Xylocopinae.
This photo above is a male Ceratina, probably Ceratina pacifica but also possibly its closest relative, Ceratina punctigena. The males are very hard to tell apart from each other and can only be distinguished with difficulty under a microscope. One can immediately tell that it’s a male, though, by its white “lip” (clypeus). The shape of the white mark kind of reminds me of the Joker from the Batman movie, The Dark Knight—except inverted in color.
Small carpenter bees excavate the centers of woody stems to construct their nests. In the summer and fall, young females would bore into woody stems to hibernate, and the following spring or summer, these females would fully excavate their winter homes into functional nests and begin collecting pollen. We have roughly 20 species of Ceratina in North America, so I will write more about them later.
By the way, the photo of the male bee was taken using a 1000mm macro lens that photographer John Gibbins lent me for the day as we photographed bees together at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park for an article in the UT San Diego newspaper and website. I think the link to the news article on the UT website is now only available to subscribers, but here’s a text copy of the article hosted on a different website. Enjoy! And thanks John for the photography tips!