Wild Ideas: Big black-and-yellow hovering machines

Eastern Carpenter Bees are important pollinators, collecting and spreading pollen on their fuzzy legs and thoraxes as they visit flowers looking for nectar. Marvin Smith via Wikimedia Commons
Eastern Carpenter Bees are important pollinators, collecting and spreading pollen on their fuzzy legs and thoraxes as they visit flowers looking for nectar.

On an exceedingly warm, breezy afternoon recently, I took a break from work and sat on my deck, something I hadn’t done much of this year. It wasn’t long until I realized what a hub of activity it was for insects, especially for huge, yellow-and-black bees that seemed to be inordinately interested in me, hovering sometimes inches from my face.

They seemed to be trying to figure out what I was – a large predator, a competitor? In looking at them, all I could think of was fat, fuzzy Tinkerbells and wondered if I had to believe in them to keep them alive.

While it was a bit unnerving to have such large insects floating so close, sporadically blown even closer by the wind, I soon realized they were carpenter bees. Often mistaken for bumblebees, which can sting and have bodies that are fuzzy all over, carpenter bees have shiny, mostly smooth abdomens, and only the females can sting, although they’re not aggressive. The species on the deck was the Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica), which has a black abdomen. The males have a white face. Both genders of the similar but less common Southern Carpenter Bee (X. micans) are more purple than black.

Originally forest inhabitants that made their homes in conifer trees near flowers, from which they get their food, carpenter bees quickly adapted to human-made structures when they appeared on the scene. Unprotected pine exteriors are especially attractive to them.

Although the tunneling is a nuisance, it’s shallow and doesn’t cause structural damage to houses. Basically, the female bees chew a hole in the wood, then make a right-angle shallow trench to deposit eggs. They don’t actually eat the wood, just turn it into a sort of paste that they use to line and divide the chambers of their nests.

Carpenter bees nest from March to October in Virginia. After depositing her eggs, the female makes a pasty wad of nectar and pollen to provide food for the larva when they hatch out, then dies. The larva morphs into a pupa, which then hatches out into an adult bee. 

Although carpenter bees don’t nest in colonies and are therefore not truly social insects, some researchers have observed females nesting near other, especially sisters. To a great extent this may be because those places are just good nesting sites, says Rappahannock resident and international bee expert Ann Harman.

The bees showing interest in me were also obviously males, since they are territorial, guarding potential nesting sites as well as flowers that produce the pollen they eat. Knowing that the males don’t have stingers, I wasn’t concerned about safety. However, it still can be a bit unnerving to have a fat bee, albeit one that is only an inch long, suspended in midair like an animated helicopter and staring at you. Every once in a while the wind would pick up, and they’d careen closer. I’m sure they have great motor skills, but still . . .

In responding to my expressed thoughts about the male bees’ apparent fascination with me, Harman aptly replied, “The male carpenter bees work so hard at defending the nest – I sometimes stand there for a while just to give them something to do.”

Without stingers, male encounters are more like Lilliputian sumo wrestlers waging combat, with weight colliding against weight as the determinant of who wins. Two of these guys smashed together so violently at one point, slamming into a bench on the deck, that one seemed stunned for a moment but quickly recovered and went elsewhere to patrol. Maybe pro wrestling would be more apt analogy.

Generally damage from carpenter bees is “minimal,” says Harman. “Some sort of finish or paint frequently deters them.” That seems to be the case here. While my deck railings, which only have a light stain, and my landlords’ log house have attracted nesting females, the painted pine exterior of my house is untouched.

With all the stress our pollinators are under from loss of habitat and use of pesticides, these otherwise harmless bees could use our help. “They are good pollinators,” Harman added, “so it’s a shame to kill them.”

Pollinators don’t just help wild plants reproduce; they’re also critical to most of the plant crops and fruits we eat. Harman suggested the government pamphlet “Wild Pollinators of Eastern Apple Orchards and How to Conserve Them” as a good place to start to learn more about bees and other pollinators. It’s available online at many sites, including Cornell Fruit.

After most of the males apparently got bored with checking me out and moved on, I tried to get a photo of one that remained. With my inadequate relic of a digital camera, it was a ridiculous attempt, but it seemed to amuse the bee, who came in close and then shot off as soon as I got near to locking in on him. Just wait until I finally get a digital SLR system with a macro lens, you little beast!

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 286 Articles

Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term “biodiversity,” “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting info. I have them all around my house, too. I think they are cool to watch. I have to be careful walking through the yard because I have almost been hit by one or two when they are wrestling. Thanks for the info. :)

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