The Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa spp.)
The carpenter bee is the third bee we are reviewing this week. It is a big bee, like the bumblebee in size, so sometimes people mistake the carpenter bee for a bumblebee. One way to tell the difference is that the carpenter bee's black abdomens are shiny and hairless, whereas the bumblebee is covered in fuzzy yellow or orange and black striped hair.
Carpenter bees are present in the US mostly from Arizona east to Florida and north to New York. The carpenter bee is ½ to 1 inch long and is black and yellow, but without stripes. The upper body is yellow while the rest of the body is black.
We have heard, although we have not independently confirmed this, that carpenter bees live on all the continents of this world except Antarctica. Maybe there is not enough thawed out wood down there for them to bore into for nesting.
Carpenter bees are solitary bees that came by their name honestly. They are called carpenter bees because they drill holes in wood to create their nests. They can be considered a nuisance to some homeowners who have wood in their backyards that they do not want holes drilled into.
These big bees like to nest in wood, and both the males and females participate in drilling tunnels. These can look relatively shallow but can be up to 10 feet deep. They also favor drilling into dead trees, wooden gates and fences, wooden furniture, eaves, rafters, house siding, and decks. Since they can really annoy homeowners, and be viewed as pests, we can only hope that most homeowners leave them to their devices rather than killing them.
This is a wonder 4:19-minute video by Chris Perkins sharing facts about carpenter bees.
An interesting feature is their ultra-strong mandibles, or jaws. Imagine “eating” your way into wood, and then all the way up to 10 feet of it. The bee literally vibrates itself through the wood. Sounds like the bumblebee’s buzz pollination routine.
They do not eat the wood, although females mix the sawdust with saliva to seal off the brood chambers they prepared with pollen and nectar loaves. The large egg, up to 15 mm long, lies on top. According to the US Forest Service, the mixture they make from sawdust is very similar to particle board.
Honeybee worker bees have very short life spans, but carpenter bees lives for up to a whopping 3 years which by any standards is a very long life for a bee. Carpenters also do not have the queen and worker bee hierarchy, there are simply male and female carpenter bees.
Carpenter bees are generalists, and excellent and valued pollinators that are especially good at pollinating in private back yards and parks. They are not bees that have the capacity to be commercialized. Like the bumblebee, they do engage in buzz pollination and have also been known to slit the side of a flower to drink out the nectar when a flower is hard to gain entry to, so they get the rewards without doing the work of pollinating the flower in return.
Like honeybees, only the female carpenter bee stings, but she rarely does. Since her stinger is unbarbed, like the bumblebee, she can sting repeatedly without dying. The males make a lot of noise if they feel threatened and can resort to dive-bombing people or other intruders in the hopes of scaring them away. They appear more aggressive than they are.
When winter comes, they retreat into tunnels to hibernate and only those that survive come forth again in early spring, usually appearing around March or April. Their baby bees will start a whole new cycle.
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