A total of fifteen new species of bees, where one honors the English broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, are described by Thomas Onuferko, PhD candidate at York University in Toronto, Canada. His paper is published in the open access journal ZooKeys.
The new species, called Attenborough’s epeolus (pronounced ee-pee-oh-lus), is rare and known from only nine specimens observed at two localities, in Colorado and New Mexico.
To name the other new species, the author referred to colleagues or relatives, the species’ physical appearance, their collectors, or the flowers on which the insects have been found.
Currently, not much is known about any of the newly described species, except that they belong to a specialized group of bees called cuckoo bees. Much like cuckoo birds, these bees sneakily lay their eggs in the nests of other species. When they hatch, the younglings seek out and kill the host egg or larva and then feed on the pollen stored by the female who has built the nest.
All new species belong to the cuckoo bee genus Epeolus, known to invade nests of polyester bees in the genus Colletes. In his publication, Thomas speculates that the name ‘epeolus’ is probably a diminutive of Epeus/Epeius, the soldier in Greek mythology said to have come up with the Trojan Horse. The sinister nature of these cleptoparasitic bees must have been compared to the Greek’s famous war strategy.
Cuckoo bees are difficult to recognize as bees because they lack the characteristic fuzzy look, which comes from the numerous long branched hairs evolved to efficiently pick up pollen. Instead, cuckoo bees rely on other bees to collect pollen for their offspring, leading to the trait being lost.
While, as a result, these species would rather be likened to wasps, their appearance is not plain at all. Cuckoo bees, including Attenborough’s epeolus, possess very short black, white, red, and yellow hairs that form beautiful patterns.
“It only seemed appropriate to name a species with such an unusual life strategy and attractive appearance after someone who has dedicated his life to illustrating the beauty and complexity of the natural world,” explains Thomas.
Including the new species, there are now 43 known Epeolus species in North America.
“It may seem surprising to some that in well-researched places like Canada and the United States there is still the potential for the discovery of new species,” says the scientist.
Since cuckoo bees are rarer than their hosts – as predators are rarer than their prey – and relatively small (5.5–10.0 mm in body length), they are likely to go undetected, which partly explains why it’s taken so long to identify these new ones.
Onuferko TM (2018) A revision of the cleptoparasitic bee genus Epeolus Latreille for Nearctic species, north of Mexico (Hymenoptera, Apidae). ZooKeys 755: 1–185. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.755.23939.