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All About Carpenter Bees

You may have experienced the destruction of carpenter bees, but there’s a lot more to this amazing species than chewing holes in your home.

These bees are among the largest types seen, and you’ve likely encountered them out and about.

Read on to learn all about carpenter bees, what makes them unique, and how to identify them in the environment.

Two carpenter bees saying hello.

What Are Carpenter Bees?

There are around 500 different kinds of carpenter bees united by their nesting methods.

This generally includes chewing into hard plant material, though there is a subspecies in the carpenter bee family that burrows into the soil instead.

Carpenter bees of different kinds can be found commonly throughout the United States and much of the world.

Physical Characteristics of Carpenter Bees

Bee, Tropical carpenter bee ( Xylocopa latipes ), Tropical carpenter bee rest on wooden fence, Bee of Malaysia.

Carpenter bees are quite large, and as a result, they’re often confused with bumblebees.

The main difference is that carpenter bees typically have shiny abdomens, many of which are black. They lack the dark, dense hairs bumblebees have, making their bodies look less furry. The bees also have fuzzy legs, which bumblebees do not.

Some subspecies have yellow hairs, and some male carpenter bees have a white or yellow face, sometimes with larger eyes than females and short mouthparts.

It’s often difficult to tell different carpenter bee subspecies apart, particularly for your average person who doesn’t know all the small details to look for. In any case, most types of carpenter bees exhibit similar behavior.

Carpenter Bee Behavior

Carpenter bees are generally solitary and don’t live in large colonies like honeybees.

Some subspecies maintain small, simple nests with mothers and daughters living together. For these cohabitating species, there is typically a division of labor between the female individuals for nest defense and gathering resources.

Solitary carpenter bees may make their nests near other individuals and usually have several nests. The female bee which builds the nest will do all the foraging, egg laying, and guarding. No more than one generation of carpenter bees lives in the nest at a time.

Carpenter bees build their nests by burrowing into hard plant matter, usually dead wood. This is why they’re often found tunneling into houses. Specific subspecies will typically favor certain types of wood.

They make these tunnels by vibrating their bodies while scraping their mandibles against the wood, shaving off small pieces at a time. They don’t consume the wood but will remove it to create an opening or use the material to create partitions inside the tunnels.

Their tunnels are perfectly circular, about a half-inch in diameter. They usually make a single entrance with other tunnels branching off from itl. Carpenter bee eggs are the largest eggs of any insect.

Female carpenter bees will create a ball of pollen and nectar for each egg to feed on once it hatches into a larva, creating sealed compartments. The fully developed bees will eventually emerge later in the summer.

Depending on the subspecies, there are two general mating systems for these bees. In the first, males with large eyes will pursue passing or nearby females to mate with. In the second, males will release a pheromone to alert nearby females to their presence.

Male bees will sometimes be observed hovering near nests. They may fly up to animals and humans but are incapable of stinging or causing harm.

Females do have stingers, but they will only use them if they feel they are threatened. Generally speaking, it’s very uncommon for carpenter bees to sting.

One of their defense mechanisms is the loud buzzing sound they make, which is often enough to intimidate any potential predators.

Adult carpenter bees will seek out old nests and overwinter inside until spring. Once they’ve built their nests, they usually only live for a few more weeks afterward.

Threats to Carpenter Bees

Natural predators for carpenter bees include woodpeckers, other birds, and some mammals.

The bees’ buzzing attracts woodpeckers, opening up their tunnels to feed on larvae. Mantises and predatory flies may also hunt them. Many of the predators that seek them out are looking for their nests and opportunities to consume the brood.

Regarding humans, these bees are often considered a nuisance when they build nests in wood homes or other buildings.

The damage they cause is usually superficial, but as more nests are built, there can be more structural damage due to their tunnel systems. It’s not unusual for people to see them and take immediate action to avoid building damage, but this is often unnecessary.

Like other bees, they are threatened by climate change and the spraying of pesticides. While this is often done on a commercial level, limiting or eliminating your pesticide use as much as possible is a good idea o avoid harming local carpenter bee populations.

How Carpenter Bees Impact the Environment

carpenter bee

Carpenter bees are one of many crucial pollinator species that help various plant life to reproduce.

Because of their comparatively short mouthparts, carpenter bees are important pollinators for shallow or open-faced flowers. Some flowers rely entirely on these bees for pollination because no other insects visit them. These bees can access flowers with “lids” that many other insects can’t get into.

Carpenter bees can also “rob” nectar by opening up the side of a flower to get to the nectar inside, which can negatively impact that flower’s ability to reproduce. This typically happens in flowers with longer-tubed flowers where they would be otherwise unable to get to the nectar.

However, they have a positive environmental impact and are considered helpful pollinators.

Deterring Carpenter Bees

carpenter bee on wood

While it’s not a sure thing that you’ll deal with carpenter bees or that they will cause significant damage, it’s best to know what to do before they show up. They will begin to emerge in most areas throughout March, April, and May, so this is the time of year to be on the lookout for carpenter bee activity.

First, carpenter bees generally seek natural, unfinished, and unpainted wood. They prefer to avoid painted material, so even just a simple coat of outdoor paint can be enough to prevent them from building nests.

Find any small cracks, crevices, or holes in wooden structures and fill them. Silicone caulk is a good option, and this will eliminate potential nesting spots that might be attractive to carpenter bees.

Make it a habit to regularly walk around your home, looking for circular holes or large hovering bees. That is usually a good indication that carpenter bees are present. If you do find holes, sealing them up will deter bees from using them in the future.

Much of the damage started by carpenter bees is secondary to their nest building. Tunneling several feet into wood structures can allow moisture, mold, fungus, or other pests inside, which, once established, are challenging to get rid of. Sometimes the best course of action is to replace the wood altogether.

There are many instances where more damage is caused by woodpeckers opening up carpenter bee tunnels to find the eggs and larvae inside. In this case, you would need to put measures in place to keep the woodpeckers away from your home.

Otherwise, preventing carpenter bees from tunneling can be very difficult. If they find suitable places to nest that happen to be in your home, they can be pretty determined. The only true way to know they won’t be interested in your space is to use composite materials instead of wood.

If necessary, insecticides can be applied to the tunnel entrances to keep the developing bees inside from emerging. However, you must regularly re-apply these pesticides to keep up with new nests and develop carpenter bees at different life stages.

The Amazing Carpenter Bee

While they are known for burrowing into unwanted places, carpenter bees are fascinating insects. Like other types of bees, they are complex creatures with interesting habits and behaviors.

They’re also one of many crucial pollinators; some are solely responsible for propagating certain plants that rely on them to survive.

If you think carpenter bees are cool, you’ll love learning about honey bees even more!