• Apiformes;
  • Asteroideae;
  • categories of host range;
  • host-plant specialization;
  • mesolecty;
  • oligolecty;
  • physiological-efficiency hypothesis;
  • polylecty;
  • toxic pollen

To assess the pollen hosts of 60 western palaearctic bee species of the genus Colletes (Colletidae), we microscopically analysed 1336 pollen loads of collected females. Twenty-six species (43.3%) were found to be specialized at the level of plant family, subfamily or genus. Thirty-four species (56.7%) proved to be pollen generalists to varying degrees, visiting the flowers of up to 15 different plant families. Flowers of the subfamily Asteroideae (Asteraceae) are by far the most important pollen source, contributing 23.6% to the pollen-plant spectrum of the whole bee genus. The high significance of Asteroideae pollen is due to the large number of specialists: 14 Colletes species belonging to four different taxonomic groups harvest pollen exclusively or predominantly on flowers of the Asteroideae. By striking contrast, Asteroideae pollen plays only a marginal role in the diets of the pollen generalists: it was recorded in only 2.7% of the pollen loads and in seven out of the 34 pollen generalists. Among the few generalists exploiting Asteroideae for pollen, three closely related species have ancestors which were possibly specialized on Asteraceae. The pattern of use of Asteroideae pollen by the Colletes bees supports recent findings that this pollen possesses unfavourable or protective properties, which render its digestion difficult, and suggests that bees need physiological adaptations to successfully utilize it. © 2008 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2008, 95, 719–733.