Orchid Bees – The Living Jewels and Expert Perfumiers of the Insect World

The Euglossines, aka Orchid Bees are often described as the world’s most flamboyant bee tribe, and looking at their brilliant metallic coloration, it’s easy to see why.

Orchid bees are probably the closest thing to real living jewel. Sporting bright metallic colors – with green, blue and gold being the most common – and very few hairs compared to other families of bees, these pollinators really stand out as some of the most visually striking insects on Earth. But it’s not just their bright, shiny exterior that sets them apart from other bees. Euglossines don’t make honey, they don’t build hives, most species of the tribe are solitary, and perhaps most fascinating of all, males collect and mix fragrances which they then use to impress females.

Photo: Thomas Shahan/Flickr

Orchid bees number around 200 different species, all of which can only be found in the Americas. Most of them inhabit forests from northern Mexico to southeastern Brazil, with only one euglossine species recently introduced in Florida.

 

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Apart from their flashy appearance, orchid bees are easily distinguished from other bees by their extremely long thin tongues, which can stretch twice the length of their bodies. It’s these long appendages that allow the bee reach deep into flowers to collect nectar and pollen. This is a specialized tool, so it’s safe to say that orchid bees are critical for pollinating rare and dispersed species of orchids.

 

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But while the euglossines’ pollinating techniques are fascinating, they pale in comparison to the bees perfumer abilities. Over their three to five-month lifespan, male of this bee tribe will concentrate most of their time and effort to collecting various fragrances and create their own unique perfumes, which they then use to impress females. So these living jewels not only look cool, but smell good too!

 

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Male orchid bees use their forelegs to collect fragrances from all kinds of surfaces, from orchids to vanilla pods and even scented pieces of paper, and then store them in specially designed pouches on their hind legs. When they are ready to mate, males gather in special display sites on tree trunks where they release some of their stored scents while buzzing, flying out from the tree, and then returning.

 

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Scientists long believed that males collected and used volatile compounds as pheromones to attract females, but that has never been demonstrated to be true in behavioral experiments. It is now thought that the perfume is used as a way to impress females and as proof of the male’s “genetic quality”. Collecting strong fragrances and putting together a complex perfume isn’t easy, so only the best males can come up with impressive mixes.

 

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Interestingly, while males are often baited by scientists with single synthetic compounds, female orchid bees are not impressed by single fragrances, regardless of their intensity, but rather by olfactory cocktails. If no female wants to mate with him, the male orchid bee knows he just has to collect more scents and create a better perfume.

 

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