Meet a native bee–Colletes with the wondrous tongue

Colletes validus male from the USGS Flickr website

Colletes, aka cellophane or polyester bees, get to start off the bee pageant I’m going to be showcasing on this page because they have cool tongues. Plus, I like the looks of Colletes. They are big enough to see pretty well without a microscope–which I appreciate– and they have sweet faces.They are nicely hairy around the middle and strongly stripy around the hind end. All together Colletes are solid, fine-looking bees although with none of the iridescent glory or massive teddy bear furriness of some others.

Colletes are solitary bees. Each female bee lays eggs in her own hole in the ground and does all the work of providing the food for her babes. Even though each bee has her own hole, sometimes Colletes nest in large aggregations–with one hole right next to another–a bit like living in a condo. One aggregation of C. thoracicus in Maryland ran to over 100,000 nest holes in 1187 square meters (so think 100 x 130 feet). That’s serious neighborliness.

Bees have a complicated array of mouthparts, some of those parts actually fold up. It allows the bees to be tidy, putting all the bits and pieces away when they aren’t in use. Some bees unfold certain parts and hook them together and use them as straws to suck up nectar. The length and shape of the parts varies depending on just what the bee needs those mouthparts for. All the mouthparts put together are called the bee’s proboscis. The part we think of as a tongue is something called the glossa and a female Colletes uses hers as a tool.

Colletes willstoni from USGS Flickr site

Before a Colletes starts laying in stores for one of her babe, she does the prep work. First she digs out a little nest cell. Then she secretes a cellophane-like substance that she spreads about with her short, bi-lobed tongue. This is a meticulous process with much secreting and spreading. The end result is a waterproof casing for her babe’s room. She then gathers pollen and nectar, lays an egg, closes up the nest cell and moves on to start the process all over again.




  • Nice photos can be found here.
  • Showing the “cellophane”
  • A nice description of insect (and bee) mouthparts can be found here
  • insect mouthparts

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