Orchid Bee: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

Orchid bees are fascinating creatures known for their stunning array of shapes and colors. These living jewels display brilliant hues like green, blue, purple, red, and gold, making them an eye-catching sight in the natural world. They belong to the tribe Euglossini and encompass genera such as Eufriesia, Euglossa, Eulaema, Exaerete, and Aglae, with the last two being parasitic on other orchid bees.

These bees are found exclusively in the Americas, with around 200 known species and new ones being discovered each year. An interesting aspect of orchid bees is their unique relationship with orchids – the bees collect and spread the orchids’ fragrances, which in turn helps in the pollination process. Furthermore, the Oregon Bee Atlas aims to raise awareness about bee biodiversity and assess the health of native bee populations.

What makes orchid bees fascinating is they are prime examples of the diverse adaptations found within the world of pollinators. Learning more about these beautiful insects not only allows for a greater appreciation of the natural world but also sheds light on the critical role pollinators play in maintaining our ecosystems.

Orchid Bee Biology and Behavior

Pollen and Nectar Collection

Orchid bees, like other bees, feed on pollen and nectar from flowers. They use their extremely long thin tongues to collect these resources.

Metallic Coloration

Orchid bees boast a shiny metallic coloration in hues of blue, green, red, and gold. This striking appearance sets them apart from most other bees.

Role as Pollinators

These bees are crucial pollinators for many plant species. They are found in forests from Mexico to southeastern Brazil, contributing to their ecosystem’s biodiversity and health.

Distinct Scents and Fragrances

Orchid bees are known to collect and store fragrances. Male bees in particular collect these scents from various flowers, using them to attract females during mating season.

Comparison of Characteristics

Feature Orchid Bees Other Bees
Metallic Coloration Yes, in various colors No, usually striped
Tongue Length Extremely long and thin Shorter
Distribution Americas Worldwide
Role in Pollination Crucial for some plants Crucial for many plants

Pros of Orchid Bees:

  • Unique metallic coloration
  • Long, specialized tongue for nectar collection
  • Important pollinators for specific plant species

Cons of Orchid Bees:

  • Limited distribution compared to other bees
  • Greater vulnerability to habitat loss

Orchid Flowers and Their Pollinators

Orchidaceae Family

  • The Orchidaceae family, commonly known as orchids, includes around 30,000 species of plants
  • Orchids are known for their colorful flowers and unique reproductive strategies

Orchids are famous for their flowers, which often have bilateral symmetry, and their petals are modified into lip structures. The flowers also consist of three sepals and a unique fragrance, which attracts pollinators like bees. Some popular orchid species are:

  • Vanilla planifolia – source of vanilla flavor
  • Cattleya – used in corsages
  • Cymbidium – popular for indoor cultivation

Orchid Bee Species

  • Orchid bees include the euglossini tribe within the bee family Apidae
  • These bees are present in forests from Mexico to southeastern Brazil

Distinct traits of the orchid bees include:

  • Extremely long, thin tongues (twice the length of their body)
  • Shiny metallic coloration
  • Fewer hairs than most other bees

Pollination Strategies

  • Orchids have evolved different strategies to attract pollinators
  • The most familiar example is Ophrys apifera, the bee orchid, which uses deceptive pollination

Comparison of Pollination Strategies:

Type of Pollination Orchid Species Pollinator Key Features
Deceptive Ophrys apifera Male bees The lip of the flower resembles a female bee
Uses visual and olfactory cues to attract pollinators
Food reward Vanilla orchid Bee species Nectar produced by the flower attracts the pollinators
The pollinator is rewarded with food for its service

Other orchids might use a combination of physical appearance and chemical cues to attract their pollinators, such as bumblebees. The orchid-pollinator interactions are diverse and often complex, which requires more research to fully elucidate these relationships.

Orchid Bee Habitats and Distribution

North and Central America

Orchid bees inhabit forests in North and Central America, specifically from Mexico to southeastern Brazil 1. They are important pollinators in these regions and can be found in various environments, including:

  • Tropical rainforests
  • Mountain forests
  • Gardens

Some examples of orchid bee species in this area include Eulaema and Exaerete, which are striking with their bright colors and unique shapes 2. These bees play a crucial role in blooming and gardening in these areas.

South America

In South America, orchid bees are predominantly found in countries like Brazil, where the tropical climate supports their habitat. They continue to serve as essential pollinators for various plants, particularly orchids, which rely on these bees for reproduction. South American orchid bee species also include the visually stunning metallic Euglossa in shining blue, green, red, and gold 3.

Introduced Populations

While orchid bees are native to North, Central, and South America, they have been introduced to other locations such as the United States, specifically Florida 4. These bees adapt well to their new environments and contribute to local pollination efforts, benefiting both native flowers and gardening.

Orchid Care and Cultivation

Gardening Advice for Orchids

Orchids are popular houseplants known for their beautiful flowers. They require specific care, including:

  • Light: Partial shade or filtered sunlight
  • Water: Soak the orchid root mass once a week
  • Temperature: Protect from cold temperatures
  • Repotting: Repot every few years

Orchids can be epiphytic or terrestrial, with different care needs.

Popular Orchid Species for Home Growing

Several orchid species are suitable for home growing, including:

Orchid Breeding and Conservation

Orchid breeding is essential for conservation and creating new, interesting varieties. Some breeders aim at conserving endangered species, while others focus on creating hybrids with unique features:

  • Long-lasting flowers
  • Resilience to pests and diseases
  • Unique colors and patterns

Breeding can help support bee populations by providing essential nectar sources for pollinators like the orchid bee.

Species Conservation Benefit Example Hybrid
Bee Orchid Support bee populations Ophrys apifera
Miltoniopsis santanaei Preserve endangered species Miltoniopsis hybrid
Rhynchostylis gigantea Increase fragrance variety Rhynchostylis hybrid
Zygopetalum Enhance color patterns Zygopetalum hybrid

In conclusion, proper orchid care and cultivation is essential for maintaining healthy plants, diverse gardens, and supporting pollinator populations.

Orchid Bees, Orchids, and Their Interactions with Humans and Nature

Importance of Orchid Bees and Orchids in Ecosystems

Orchid bees, found only in the Americas, play a vital role in pollinating not only orchids but also various other plant species. Their unique characteristics make them essential elements of their ecosystems:

  • Diverse shapes and colors: Ranging from fuzzy black and yellow Eulaema to bright metallic blue, green, red, and gold Euglossa1
  • Long tongues: Allows them to reach nectar in hard-to-reach flowers1
  • Specific habitats: They’re found in forests from Mexico to southeastern Brazil2

Orchids, on the other hand, are one of the most diverse plant families, with around 30,000 species worldwide3. They rely heavily on pollinators like orchid bees for reproduction, and in turn, provide food for the bees. Some orchids even release chemicals to mimic the scent of female bees, attracting male bees for pollination4.

Role in Pollination of Commercially Valuable Plants

Orchid bees are not just limited to pollinating orchids. They also help in the pollination of commercially valuable plants, contributing to their production and overall economic value. For instance, they are known to visit orchard crops like apples, pears, plums, and apricots5, which aligns closely with their active duration during the blooming period of these fruit trees. This mutual relationship benefits both the bees and humans who depend on these crops.


Footnotes

  1. US Forest Service – Orchid Bees (The Euglossines) 2 3

  2. Ask A Biologist – Orchid Bees 2

  3. Ask A Biologist – Orchid Bees 2

  4. Entomology and Nematology – Green Orchid Bee 2

  5. PubMed

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Euglossa Orchid Bee

 

What is this?
Hi Daniel,
I was happy to hear from you,and wanted to let you know that as soon as I can I will send some pictures for your site,things tend to go in cycles with me getting busier at certain times as well,however in the meantime I’m sending a picture,not resized to your sites specs, just the site it was submitted to,but just so you can see because I’m wondering if you can tell me what kind of insect this is…it acts like a bee,and I’ve seen them around my yard a lot,and have always called them little green bees,but I have no clue as to what they actually are,I live in South Florida,near the Fort Lauderdale area. I submit to photography sites,so most likely I’ll be asked by everyone what it is,I’m really hoping you’ll know!!!
Thanks very much,
Beth Bernier

Hi Beth,
Your photo is absolutely gorgeous. We were unsure exactly what your beautiful metallic insect was. It is colored like a sweat bee or a cuckoo wasp, but its body form resembled a fly more. The telltale feature of a fly is that they have two and not four wings. We are turning to a more knowledgeable source:
“Dear Daniel: Boy, that sure does look like an orchid bee in the genus Euglossa, but as far as I know, they are found strictly south of the Mexican border. I suppose it could be a recent introduction (or something else I am unfamiliar with), Definitely an apid bee of some sort. Thanks for sharing!
Sincerely,
Eric”
Later Eric wrote back
Euglossa bee? Daniel:
Here is a real expert answer as to what the bee is (it is a Euglossa sp.), and how it might have turned up so far out of its normal range.
Eric
Dear Friends, esp. Doug Y:
I think this is a Euglossa sp. bee, but what would it be doing in Ft. Lauderdale???
Obviously, it’s visiting flowers. 😉
At any rate, this is not surprising, given that it’s a well-known phenomenon for hurricanes to move insects around. Many, MANY of the odd US records for Mexican lepidoptera coincide with major storms – and I certainly think this year would qualify as a major storm year. So, I would expect such a stray to be a meaningless data point, especially as it’s a male Euglossa – though if there’s one, there may be more, and if that includes some fertilized females, then who knows? Climatically, there isn’t really any obvious reason southern Florida couldn’t support orchid bees. If there are repeated sightings in the future, then at least we have some evidence pointing to this being the year the invasion might have occurred.
Peace,
Doug Yanega
Dept. of Entomology, Entomology Research Museum
Univ. of California – Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521-0314
phone: (951) 827-4315
(standard disclaimer: opinions are mine, not UCR’s)
http://cache.ucr.edu/~heraty/yanega.html

Hi Daniel,
Well that’s quite exciting news!!! If your expert friends are interested..I can tell you that these bees have been here at least a year,perhaps longer as I have been trying to get a good photo of one for at least that long,and there have been at a few bees present most times,they seem to love my wild morning glories,as well as the flowers shown in the image,in fact they seem to be quite attracted to any flower in the violet/blue color. I’ve also seen them before at a nearby nature preserve called Fern Forest.My exact address is 5500 SW 6th Court in Margate,Fl. That’s so an exact location can be noted,also if there’s anyone that wishes to contact me about the bees for scientific purposes please feel free to give them my email address. Thank you again for your help!
Beth

Update: (12/14/2006)
Hello my name is Lance I have seen this bug as well in South Florida. It is bright green and an incredible flier. I have seen this bug hover in a single spot as still as a statue, then very quickly dart just a couple of inches over left or right or forward. I wish I could get a picture of it. It went into a hole it made or something else made burrowed into concrete….perhaps building a nest….I just wanted you all to know the behavior so maybe it would help better understand it….maybe a new kind of bug

Letter 2 – Orchid Bee

 

Subject: Metallic Green fly with Silver pincers
Location: San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
July 8, 2012 2:37 pm
Hello Bugman!
I rescued this fly from my pool yesterday & have been trying to find out what it is… As you can see it’s very shiny green & where the ”mouth” is, it has pretty big silver pincers.
Can you help? 😉
Thanks!
Signature: PunkRockGirl

Orchid Bee

Hi PunkRockGirl,
We are going to also address a separate email you sent regarding using our search engine.  Type in a few key words.  We tried that with this request.  Knowing the insect order really helps, but when we first saw a photo of this creature in flight, we were uncertain if it was a bee or a fly.  We typed in “Metallic Green Fly” into our What’s That Bug? search engine and one of the choices was this Orchid Bee posting from 2004 when we first reported on this Central American species being sighted in Florida.  They are now firmly established in Florida.  The Orchid Bee is a beautiful creature and we now have many postings in our archive.  You can compare the face to this image from BugGuide and BugGuide also has other information.

Letter 3 – Orchid Bee from Panama with Pollinarium

 

Subject: Bee
Location: Chiriqui Panama, Central America
July 12, 2013 12:12 pm
This bee has a strange ”backpack” on it’s back and , in addition to a ”normal” bee tongue-tube, it appears to lower and extend it’s lower mandible and some pinkish ”baleen” comes out. What is this bee and what is the story with these two strange characteristics?
Signature: Linda

Bee from Panama
Orchid Bee from Panama with Pollinarium

Dear Linda,
Thank you for sending us your wonderful photographs of this unusual Bee.

Bee from Panama
Orchid Bee from Panama

We believe that it looks identical to an Orchid Bee, Eulaema cingulata, that we posted some years back.  Karl assisted us in that identification and he provided us some links.  We believe the “backpack” you observed is an orchid pollen pack or pollinarium.  Karl wrote:  “Apparently male Euglossine bees are attracted to certain orchids not to gather nectar, which these orchids don’t possess, but rather to collect fragrant compounds which are then used to attract female bees. The male flowers are designed so that the pollinarium is flung onto the bee when it lands, where it sticks until the bee visits a female flower where it completes the pollination. Both males and females visit other flowers to obtain the nectar they need.”  Karl also provided us with a link to this photo of an Orchid Bee with a pollinarium that looks like your documentation.  Here is a photo of a mounted specimen with a pollinarium from Spiegel Online, but alas, we don’t read German.  The Biodiversity of Belize website has a similar photograph and you must scroll to the bottom of the page.  There the site offers the information about Eulaema cingulata:  “Males of this and related species pollinate a number of Neotropical orchids such as this Catasetum. These male bees visit the flowers nut so much as for the nectar but in order to obtain certain chemicals they need. For this reason the males can also be attracted by using benzyl acetate and other chemical substances as bait.  The bee to the right is incapacitated by a pollinarium of Catasetum integerrimum that is stuck to its wing. It was unable to remove this pollinarium and only after I removed it myself, the bee was able to fly again.”  The interconnectivity of all things on this planet includes such highly specialized adaptations as the pollination of a specific orchid by a specific Orchid Bee.

Orchid Bee with Pollinarium
Orchid Bee with Pollinarium

Julian Donahue provides some information.
I think the word is “pollinium,” plural “pollinia,” at least that’s the way I’ve always seen it.
Milkweeds have a similar pollination apparatus, with pollen “clips” that I’ve seen attached to the legs and other parts of various moths.
Julian

Ed. Note:
Encyclopedia Britannica online provides this definition for pollinarium:  “…the caudicles, which are derived from the anther. Orchids that have a stipe also have caudicles that connect the pollinia to the apex of the stipe. The pollinia, stipe, and viscidium are called the pollinarium.”  Encyclopedia Britannica online provides this definition for pollinium:  “The pollen grains are usually bound together by threads of a clear, sticky substance (viscin) in masses called pollinia. Two basic kinds of pollinia exist: one has soft, mealy packets bound together to a viscin core by viscin threads and is called sectile; the other kind ranges from soft, mealy pollinia, through more compact masses, to hard, waxlike pollinia; the latter usually have some mealy…”  So, when other parts of the plant (orchid) are included with the pollen, pollinarium is more correct.  Guess we need an orchid expert to determine which word is more correct in this situation. 

Daniel and Karl,
Thank you so much for your assistance. You have a wonderful resource for those of us who like to know what is around us. I have been photographing and documenting what we find in our property here in Panama and so many of the insects are new to me. I have an interesting praying mantis with purple spots that I will send next time. Thank you.
Linda

A belated comment
Subject: Orchid Bee’s
July 18, 2013 8:53 pm
There are pictures of an orchid bee with a strange appendage on it’s back. I may know what that is. There is a certain orchid in Costa Rica that blooms in the lowland broad leaf deciduous forest which is a member of the lady slipper orchids. When the flower is ripe and opens it has a spring mechanism within it that when triggered by the orchid bee it shoots a small miniature plant like thing (see orchid bee picture and appendage stuck to it’ back) that has some sort of latex glue on it. I actually think it’s a miniature plant, that the bee gets to transport on it’s back to a new location thus not only pollinating the plant but taking it’s offspring to a new location. This is a theory.
Signature: Daniel Shields

Thanks Daniel,
We recently posted photos of an Orchid Bee with the Pollinarium of an orchid on its back.

 

 

 

Letter 4 – Orchid Bee

 

Subject: sweat bee or mason bee
Location: SW Florida
January 5, 2014 8:41 pm
Just wondering if this is a sweat bee our a mason bee. Sighted in sw florida 1/5/14. Size of a honeybee. Hovered like a hummingbird. Blue in the light, green in the shade. Solo, friendly, gentle!
Signature: Stacey

Orchid Bee
Orchid Bee

Hi Stacey,
This is an Orchid Bee,
Euglossa dilemma.  It is a neotropical species and we first became aware of the Orchid Bee‘s presence in Florida in 2004.  Since that time, it has become well established.

Letter 5 – Orchid Bee from Guyana

 

Interesting bug
Location: Guyana, Wakenaam Island, Essequibo River
February 9, 2011 5:16 pm
Here it something that died in the window screen. I set it on a coconut and took this photo. Is it some kind of bee?
Signature: G. Fischer

Orchid Bee

Dear G. Fischer,
We requested assistance from Eric Eaton with this identification and here is his response:  “Daniel:  Yes, one of the orchid bees in the Euglossini tribe, or a closely-allied tribe.  Eric

Update courtesy of John Ascher
April 22, 2012
parasitic orchid bee genus Exaerete.

Letter 6 – Orchid Bee Query

 

Subject: Orchid bee?
Location: Royal palm beach florida
March 11, 2014 1:21 pm
I believe is orchid bee, do not have pic of actual bee, have had over a year now. he is quite interesting
Signature: Toni

What's Nesting in the Bird House???
What’s Nesting in the Bird House???

Dear Toni,
We are presuming that you attached two images of a bird house because the creature in question has nested inside the bird house.  Your letter did not describe the creature, which you have stated is a Bee.  The Orchid Bee,
Euglossa dilemma, is a bright green bee that is often seen hovering near blossoms.  If the Bee you have had for over a year is not bright green, it is not the Orchid Bee.  We have received another report of Green Orchid Bees nesting in an abandoned birdhouse, but Bumble Bees will also nest in a birdhouse.  Only the female Orchid Bee builds the nest, so you should use the pronoun “she” when referring to your creature.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

14 thoughts on “Orchid Bee: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell”

  1. Bless the botanists, they have an incredibly precise and HUGE vocabulary, and I am constantly discovering new descriptive terms. “Pollinarium,” however, is a new one to me. I have pulled four books from my library, and not one has the word “pollinarium” in it. To wit:

    “Most orchids rely upon insects, especially members of the Hymenoptera and Lepidoptera, to help the fertilization of their flowers. When an insect in search of nectar visits an orchid flower it comes in contact with the viscidium, a sticky disk connected by a stalk to the pollinia. The viscidium adheres to the insect, taking with it the pollinia which are carried on to another flower, so ensuring cross-fertilization.” So there you have the three parts that comprise the pollinarium, although that word doesn’t appear here. [Field Guide to Orchids of North America by Williams & Williams, Universe Books, 1983, ISBN 0-87663-415-3]

    “pollen grain sticky, gen[erally] removed as sessile anther sacs” [The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California, ed. by James C. Hickman, University of California Press, 1993, ISBN 0-520-08255-9]

    “pollinium, singular noun, pollinia, plural” [Botanical Latin by William T. Stearn, Hafner Publishing Co., 1966] (no mention of “pollinarium”)

    “Pollinium. A more or less coherent mass of pollen grains, as in the Orchidaceae and Asclepiadaceae.” [Hortus Third: A Concise Dictionary of Plants Cultivated in the United States and Canada, rev. by staff of Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1976] (no mention of “pollinarium”)

    It would appear that the terms “pollinium/pollinia” are more widely used and accepted than “pollinarium.” Our WTB host is correct in that a much closer examination of the structure being carried by the bee is required before we can determine which term is more precise in this case.

    Reply
  2. Bless the botanists, they have an incredibly precise and HUGE vocabulary, and I am constantly discovering new descriptive terms. “Pollinarium,” however, is a new one to me. I have pulled four books from my library, and not one has the word “pollinarium” in it. To wit:

    “Most orchids rely upon insects, especially members of the Hymenoptera and Lepidoptera, to help the fertilization of their flowers. When an insect in search of nectar visits an orchid flower it comes in contact with the viscidium, a sticky disk connected by a stalk to the pollinia. The viscidium adheres to the insect, taking with it the pollinia which are carried on to another flower, so ensuring cross-fertilization.” So there you have the three parts that comprise the pollinarium, although that word doesn’t appear here. [Field Guide to Orchids of North America by Williams & Williams, Universe Books, 1983, ISBN 0-87663-415-3]

    “pollen grain sticky, gen[erally] removed as sessile anther sacs” [The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California, ed. by James C. Hickman, University of California Press, 1993, ISBN 0-520-08255-9]

    “pollinium, singular noun, pollinia, plural” [Botanical Latin by William T. Stearn, Hafner Publishing Co., 1966] (no mention of “pollinarium”)

    “Pollinium. A more or less coherent mass of pollen grains, as in the Orchidaceae and Asclepiadaceae.” [Hortus Third: A Concise Dictionary of Plants Cultivated in the United States and Canada, rev. by staff of Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1976] (no mention of “pollinarium”)

    It would appear that the terms “pollinium/pollinia” are more widely used and accepted than “pollinarium.” Our WTB host is correct in that a much closer examination of the structure being carried by the bee is required before we can determine which term is more precise in this case.

    Reply
  3. I have just seen a blue shiny bee in the south east coast of Australia, looks just like a normal bee with blue metal armor. never seen before in 40 years.

    Reply
    • So happy to see this post. I have 2 of them buzzing around my basil plant. They don’t fly like bees. Fast zip back and forth then fly in one place.

      I’m in Safety Harbor, FL

      Reply
  4. I found a bright green bee with a blue edge on it abdomen . It looks like the orchid bee. I’m in Trussville Alabama. I’ve seen a similar bee in Florida . Could it be the same. Sorry no pics.

    Reply
  5. I have this beautiful green bee on my patio, it really seems to love my white bacopa plant. I have never seen this before and I have no orchids. From Sarasota, Fla.

    Reply
  6. We live in Holly Hill, FL which is alongside Daytona Beach. We have one or more of these green bees in a nest in the ground, just outside our front door. This is the second year they (it?) have made a nest in that same spot. We do not use pesticides, and haven’t for many years. Plus there are a variety of flowers in the yard, including orchids. I’ll send a photo if I can get a decent one.

    Reply

Leave a Comment