Head of a bee front on view, black with yellow central marking.

Capricious masked bees are loners…sometimes

Image: Courtesy James Dorey Photography

Did you know that not all bees have hives? Unlike European honeybees, many Australian native bees are solitary. These bees tend to keep to themselves and build tunnel-like nests to raise their young. The capricious mask bee has a foot in both camps. Many capricious masked bees live alone, but sometimes, some of them keep eyes out for one other.

Most capricious masked bees make their own nests and raise their young alone. They have to find food for themselves and their babies, and that leaves their nests open to attack from wasps and flies. So sometimes, these single parents find some help. A sister or daughter bee decides not to make their own nest, and they stay around to act as a guard instead.

Guard bees don’t feed or care for the babies – the queen bee does all that work. Their only job is keeping the nest safe. Guards also don’t lay their own eggs – all the young in the nest come from the queen. That might seem like a bad deal for the guards, but it’s not quite that simple. Even though they don’t have their own babies, the guard bees can still pass on their genes by looking after the queen’s children. This process is called kin selection.

But scientists from Flinders University have found an extra detail that changes the story. Having guards allows queen bees to have more children, and surprisingly, the extra kids are all male. It’s a great deal for the queen. Strangely enough, it’s not as helpful for the guards.

Much like other bees, ants and wasps, female capricious masked bees are more closely related to their sisters than their brothers. And that means the queen gets lots of benefit from guards, but guards don’t get as much from the relationship. That might be one reason that guards aren’t very common.

“This Australian bee seems to have landed in a ‘Goldilocks zone’: not too little socialising and not too much,” the researchers say. Bees can have complex societies even without hives like European honeybees.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

By submitting this form, you give CSIRO permission to publish your comments on our websites. Please make sure the comments are your own. For more information please see our terms and conditions.

Why choose the Double Helix magazine for your students?

Perfect for ages 8 – 14

Developed by experienced editors

Engaging and motivating

*84% of readers are more interested in science

Engaging students voice