Abstract Aim To investigate biogeographical patterns of cleptoparasitic Exaerete bee species and their orchid bee hosts. Location Neotropical region, from Central America to southern Brazil. Methods Correlations between relative frequencies of cleptoparasitic Exaerete species and their host Eulaema species were employed to investigate the geographical association between such species pairs. Results Our data support the current proposition that the Eulaema meriana/Eulaema flavescens complex is the main host for Exaerete frontalis. Contrary to current belief, however, Eulaema nigrita apparently is not the only and, in some regions, not the most important host for Exaerete smaragdina. Main conclusions Current knowledge on cleptoparasite host associations among orchid bees is based on fortuitous observations, and in some instances generalizations from such observations are not corroborated by the frequencies and distributions of the bees involved. Our data suggest that cleptoparasitic pressure, rather than other features of the forest environment, may be responsible for the low abundance of E. nigrita in the Amazonian forests.