The carpenter bee is so named because they bore, or drill, holes into wood to lay their eggs. They belong to the genus Xylocopa, which translates to woodcutter and includes 400 species worldwide.
There are both large and small carpenter bees in our area, but only the large eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica, really makes its presence known in the springtime.
Not quite lookalikes
The eastern carpenter bee is a very large bee. They have a fuzzy yellow thorax with a black spot in the middle. Their large size and fuzzy thorax (the middle section where the legs and wings originate) make them look a lot like bumblebees. But if you look closely, their abdomen (the third section or butt) is shiny and metallic, while bumblebees’ abdomens are fuzzy.
You can also tell the difference between male and female eastern carpenter bees. Males have a white spot on their face and longer bodies compared to the females’. Females have a wider head.
These large bees are pollinators, but their big size means they need large, open-faced flowers to land on. These sneaky bees have found another way. In flowers that are more tube-shaped and not suitable as a landing pad, they will just bore a hole into the side of the flower and steal nectar that way. This leaves most of the flowers unpollinated. Remarkably, a few species of flowers have developed a way to achieve pollination anyway when bored into on the side.
People often think of bees as social insects that live in large colonies, with members of the colony having specific jobs. While this is true for honeybees and bumblebees, 90% of bees are actually solitary insects. But nothing is ever that simple, and carpenter bees seem to fall somewhere in between.
Words to know
Boring: To create or enlarge a hole by removing material.
Hierarchy: A system in which people or groups are ranked according to status or authority.
Overwinter: To live through the winter.
Pollinator: An insect or other species that transfers pollen to a plant to allow for fertilization.
Provoke: To give rise to a reaction or emotion in someone.
Tertiary: Third in order or level.
Thorax: The middle section of the body of an insect that bears the legs and wings.
With carpenter bees, there is no queen bee, but there is a hierarchy of females: primary, secondary and tertiary sisters. Primary bees have overwintered twice, are larger in size and do most of the work. They bore into wood and create cells for individual eggs. They lay the eggs, gather food and leave a drop of food in each cell. Looking closely, you can often spot the primary sisters because their wings and mandible (mouthparts) are worn from all the work they do.
Secondary sisters help forage for food, keep the nests tidy and may even help lay eggs if there are many cells. Most often, the secondary sister does not survive overwintering a second time.
Tertiary bees are the smallest sisters. They have overwintered only once. They hang out in the nest, are delivered food to eat and are inactive all season. Tertiary bees will grow, overwinter a second time and become the primary sister following year.
To sting or not to sting
Only female bees have a stinger. They are usually too busy preparing the nest to come near us. They are not an aggressive bee, so they very rarely sting humans. But they can and will sting if they are provoked or if a person tries to handle them. So don’t try to handle them, and beware — they have a smooth stinger! Honeybees have a hooked stinger that stays in our skin and detaches from the bee, allowing them to only sting once. But a smooth stinger means it does not get caught. If bothered, female carpenter bees are able to sting again and again and again.
As for males, it is their job to guard the nest. This means many male bees may be hovering around the same spot. They are not working together, they are just coincidentally guarding nests in the same area. The males seem curious and not at all frightened by humans. These large bees may get close and in your face to warn you to stay away from nests, but there is no need to worry. Male bees do not have stingers and therefore cannot harm you. Carpenter bees have only one batch of babies per year, so this behavior will only last a few weeks in the spring time.
Boring into wood to build a nest is pretty clever. Eastern carpenter bees create a durable home that can be used again and again. Each year, they can renovate and add more cells to their nests. But this can be a serious nuisance and cause damage to your home, literally putting holes in it.You can try to prevent them from building at your house by adding a fresh coat of paint yearly to the wooden parts of your house. If they are already there, you can purchase carpenter bee traps at most home improvement or hardware stores. And of course, if there are plenty, you may need to call an exterminator for assistance.
While the eastern carpenter bee can be a pest at our homes, they are important members of the ecosystems they inhabit. They help pollinate flowers, sometimes even ones they rob. They are also important members of the food chain. Birds, spiders, robber flies and mantises will all feast on a carpenter bee when they can. So if you see them hovering around or busy visiting flowers, “bee” thankful!
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