Large, Black Bee from Borneo
Location: Kota Kinabalu, Borneo
February 20, 2011 12:28 am
My husband and I recently took a trip to Borneo (early February, 2011). He went for the beach and I went for the bugs. These very large, black bees were fairly common in Sabah, the eastern state of Malaysian Borneo. We often saw them buzzing around ferns and flowers. These Hymenopterans are so lovely and so large, but I am having a hell of time finding out much more about them, even online. Can you help? Thanks so much! Kudos on the book.
Thanks for your kind comments on the book. The structure of the antennae and large size of the eyes visible in your photo are very distinctive. We could not imagine that this handsome bee could be anything but a Carpenter Bee, so we did a web search for Carpenter Bee Borneo. Imagine our glee when we found a gallery on FlickR devoted to bees from Borneo. Scrolling down the page, we found a likely candidate identified as Xylocopa latipes, Giant Bee in Borneo. Armed with that information, we did a new web search and learned that this is one of the largest known bees in the world when we found the Vespa bicolor website that has this account: “Common name(s): Carpenter bee
A very large bee, reaching 35mm. Fully black. Wings with metallic blue, green and purple colours under sunlight. This species is not as sexually dimorphic (distinguishable) as many other species are at first glance, as the male neither differs in colour nor has the front of his head lighter in colour. However, he has unusual legs; they are unusually hairy, and the front legs are lighter in colour, with long, smooth hairs arranged in a strange “brush-like” way.
This species is quite widely distributed across Southeast Asia, and is also one of the commonly seen species in Singapore.
As mentioned earlier, this species is probably the largest Xylocopa, and in fact, the largest overall bee! (See comparison on the main solitary bee section).
This giant bee is commonly seen feeding from flowers. For some reason, this species seems to feed on flowers much higher up than the other common species, Xylocopa confusa. It also appears to prefer purple flowers, as opposed to Xylocopa confusa, which prefers yellow ones, although both these notes are not absolute rules but just general observations.
This species is said to be quite versatile in choice of nesting sites. However, 70% of the nests I found were in tree branches. Although this bee is far wider in proportion than many of its kin, the entrance hole is not always significantly larger than that of other carpenter bees; in fact, the size of the entrance hole seems linked to the area and structure the nest is built in. For instance, in open locations such as wooden poles used to support small trees or basketball posts, the hole usually leads straight into the nest, and the diameter is quite small for such a large bee (1 cm). However, in shady, wooded areas, these bees make far larger entrance holes which lead into the tree branch at an angle; these holes may be 2 cm in diameter! Furthermore, a nest on such a tree trunk may have 2 or 3 entrances, instead of just one! On my visit to Singapore in September 2006, I found a branch with 3 separate nests; there were 9 entrance holes, 3 to each!
This bee frequently evokes both fear and fascination in those who see one. It is assuredly safe to watch this gentle giant going about its work, collecting nectar and pollen or biting a nest entrance in a branch.”
The Indian Bees Gallery on FlickR has some images of the male Xylocopa latipes on his territorial perch (see here and here) which makes us inclined to identify your specimen as a male on his territorial perch.
As a postscript, we invite you to view the comparison on the Solitary Bee page of Vespa bicolor between the relative sizes of the Largest Bee in the World, Wallace’s Giant Mason Bee, Megachile pluto, and your species of Carpenter Bee, Xylocopa latipes, as well as this explanation: “Although most Megachiliid bees are quite small, a species known as Megachile pluto (Wallace’s giant mason bee) is in fact the longest bee known. Females reach 38mm and have unusually large heads and mandibles. This rare species is found only in Bacan, an island in the northern Moluccas in Indonesia. It is also unique in that it nests in termite nests! However, the bulk, width wingspan and other measurements (except the head) of Xylocopa latipes (arguably the largest of its group) distinctly exceed that of Megachile pluto. Furthermore, at 35mm, the carpenter bee is only slightly shorter than the Megachiliid. The illustration above clearly shows the comparison. The length of the Megachile pluto has been pumped up to 40mm; this shows that even a specimen of larger than known size still falls short of the bulk of big Xylocopa. The information and illustration was kindly provided by and copyright of David Williams.”
Hooray! Thank you so much. What wonderful information. I can now put a species name to the photo for my travel blog and sound a little less like an armchair entomologist. It doesn’t surprise me that this species is one the biggest bees in the world because Borneo is bursting with superlative insects. On our trip, we were also lucky enough to see the world’s smallest firefly! Bugs are the best. Thanks again!
Identification courtesy of John Ascher
April 22, 2012
I agree with the likely det. as X. latipes (subgenus Mesotrichia). It’s a male.
Update: December 27, 2013
According to the Vespa Bicolor website: “A sting from one of these giant bees is a lot less painful than one would expect, although it does cause some swelling. Furthermore, these bees never attack, so the only way one may be accidentally stung would be to actually crush one or to unknowingly touch the entrance hole.”