Do you ever wonder where bees sleep? Well, in my garden, some are sleeping on a bright gold bed of petals – right inside my squash flowers!
This year, I’ve had to be more careful than usual watering my garden in the mornings so that I don’t spray the flower blooms. Why, you ask? Well, I planted a number of squash plants this year. So? What does that have to do with anything? Well… To both my surprise and delight, squash flowers are apparently the perfect napping place for some late rising, sleep-headed bees. These aren’t just any random drowsy bees though. These bees are the male Pruinose Squash Bees. And it wouldn’t be very nice to wake them up with a cold shower, now would it?
The Pruinose Squash Bee, Peponapis pruinosa (family= Apidae), also called the Eastern Cuburbit Bee, or occasionally the Hoary Squash Bee depending on where you live, is a specialist. Its scientific name ‘pruinosa’, or ‘pruinose’, is Latin for ‘frosty’, or ‘hoarfrost’, and refers to the bee’s hairy white rear end. The common name part of the name ‘squash’, as you might have already guessed, comes from the plants it pollinates –squash.
The Pruinose Squash Bee is a specialist pollinator of Cucurbita plants, the genus that includes squash, zucchini, gourds, and pumpkin. This group is commonly just referred to as ‘cucurbits’. While the Pruinose Squash Bee may drink nectar from other nearby flowers, it is dependent on the pollen from cucurbit plants to feed its babies. This type of specialization on just a few host plants is called “oligolecty” – in case you want to show off your science knowledge around your friends :) The bee is native to south western US and Central America where there are wild cucurbit plants that grow, but since humans have started planting domesticated cucurbits, it has expanded it’s range throughout much of North America. Some of this range expansion is quite recent though, with the squash bee only being discovered in the northwestern part of the US in 2016! Still, the Pruinose Squash Bee can usually be found wherever squash or other cucurbits are grown in any quantity. I’m not sure how many squash plants are needed to provide enough pollen for a healthy brood of baby bees, but apparently my half a dozen or so plants were enough for them to find me. Granted, it’s entirely possible my neighbors also have squash somewhere in their gardens as well.
Pruinose Squash Bees are a type of solitary bee, meaning they live in small family units made up of one mother and a number of babies. They make their nests underground, usually somewhere near the squash plants they depend on. Occasionally, they leave a little anthill looking mound at the entrance to their home (=tumulus), but so far I’ve only found mole mounds near my garden. Pruinose Squash Bees are quite friendly bees and don’t guard their nests like Honey Bees, because the mother is busy all day searching for and collecting pollen from squash plants for her soon to be or already growing babies (think single mom on a mission). This is also the reason the male Pruinose Squash Bees can often be found sleeping inside squash flowers.
While the female Pruinose Squash Bees return most nights to their underground nest and babies, the males are on their own to find a place to sleep. This isn’t why they hang out around the squash flowers though. The males stay nearby the squash flowers because they know that the females have to come to the squash flowers for pollen. This means it’s the best place to post-up in order to find a mate. Kind of like hanging out at a grocery store to hit on women… Unlike a bar scene, eventually everyone needs to get groceries, lol. So, after a long day of hanging out in and around the squash flowers waiting for a female bee to mate with, the male squash bees often just spend the night in one of the flowers. That way they’ll be there first thing in the morning when the females start making their early morning rounds (the females don’t sleep in like the males do – they’re much too busy). Squash flowers also close their petals at night, wrapping up like a burrito of closed taco, so they provide a nice safe place to sleep.
Squash and other cucurbit plants require pollination in order to make the squashes and pumpkins we like to eat. While other bees do sometimes pollinate these cucurbits, the Pruinose Squash Bee is by far the most efficient and reliable pollinator of these plants because they are so specialized and only pollinate cucurbits. Even the male Pruinose Squash Bee provides important pollution services, which is unusual for most bees. While most male bees are primarily around for reproduction (as is the squash bee), because the male squash bees spend most of their time hopping from squash flower to squash flower between naps, they end up transferring almost as much pollen from flower to flower as the females. While it may be unintentional (as many pollination services actually are), because they are pretty hairy, have been rolling around in the pollen all day (and night), and pretty much only hang out in squash flowers, they transfer a lot of pollen to where it needs to go.
So, next time you’re out watering your garden, think about the fuzzy sleepy headed-bees that may still be napping in your flowers - and consider not waking them up with a cold shower… At least if you have squash or zucchini plants in the garden – there shouldn’t be anyone napping in the tomatoes and marigolds 😆
To read more about the Pruinose Squash Bee, check out:
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