Long-Tongued Bee Woos With “Perfume”

When it comes to wooing females, male Euglossa natesi bees have their own version of sweet talk. The iridescent bee collects pollen from different flowers to create its own, tailor-made fragrance.

Evolutionary biologist Santiago Ramirez has been studying the South American bees for several years, trying to figure out how these “chemical engineers” perfect the ideal potion to attract females.

In the process of collecting perfumes from flowers, including orchids, the insects store the pollen in large pockets in their hind legs, Ramirez, of the University of California, Berkeley, told me.

“Each species has its own mixture of different chemicals that they collect,” he said. “As the [chemicals] accumulate, at the end of [the bees’] life, when they’re ready to mate, they present them to the females.”

The perfume acts sort of like a pheromone: “Females use these chemicals to identify and mate with males of right species, [and] also use them to discriminate between males in the population.”

But it’s still a mystery how the bees concoct the right chemical mixture, and whether they rely on different plants for their ingredients.

E. natesi, only discovered in 2005, has another mark of distinction—the species has one of the longest tongues of the 200 or so species of orchid bees, metallic-colored pollinators that live in lowland forests of the Neotropics. E. natesi‘s 16.88-millimeter organ is twice the length of the insect’s body (see picture below).

This trait may have actually co-evolved with flowers—one still controversial theory is the tongue got longer in order to reach the nectar at the bottom of the flower’s tube, which ensures that the bee will carry away pollen to aid the flower’s reproduction, Ramirez said.

(Read about the mammal with the longest tongue.)

Whatever the reason, this bee’s tongue is, well, the bee’s knees, too.


The bee’s tongue measures 16.88 millimeters. Photograph courtesy Santiago Ramirez.


Orchid bees, such as E. natesi, sport iridescent colors. Photograph courtesy Santiago Ramirez.



Meet the Author
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.