By Arthur V. Evans
The usual suspects of spring are all around me once again, including large, buzzing, blue-black eastern carpenter bees, Xylocopa virginica. They are noisily patrolling dead limbs and wooden structures in our neighborhood as they search for mates and nesting sites. Unlike the social honey bee imported from Europe, carpenter bees are solitary creatures native to North America. The bees buzzing around now reached maturity last summer. Back then they stretched their wings for a bit before tucking themselves away for the winter deep within the recesses in the very nest chamber where they had grown up.
White-faced and stingless, males are very territorial and spend much of their time claiming prominent flowering plants and bare patches of ground as their own. They aggressively drive off other bees and insects and often face-off with unsuspecting humans that unwittingly venture into their territory. The territorial borders of male carpenter bees are quite fluid and change from day-to-day. Amorous males regularly patrol flowers in search of females. Courtship involves lots of loud buzzing and aerial acrobatics, with the pair flying apart and coming together several times.
Dark-faced females are capable of delivering a painful sting, but are relatively docile. They chew their nest tunnels in dead trees, logs, or unfinished wooden structures, especially those with southern or eastern exposures. Females will consider exposed rafters, old house frames, picnic tables, rail fences, posts, trellises, and other exposed wood surfaces as potential nest sites.
With their powerful jaws working non-stop day and night, female carpenter bees will chew a perfectly round entrance hole that is about one half-inch in diameter. After tunneling in about one body-length, the tunnel turns sharply to the left or right at a 90º angle to follow the timber’s grain. They may construct two or more parallel tunnels from the main entrance that measure up to 14 inches long, each slightly wider than the entrance in diameter.
Sometime in May or June, the first egg is laid on a doughy pill of pollen about the thickness of a kidney bean at the end of a blind tunnel. The provision of pollen serves as the sole food source for the developing bee grub. The surrounding wood in the tunnel is then chewed into a fine pulp for form a disk-shaped partition that seals the egg off in its own cell. Each tunnel may have up to 6-8 cells.
Carpenter bees do not eat wood, but rely instead on flowers for nourishment. As the adults forage for pollen and nectar, they will mark each flower that they visit with a repellant chemical, or pheromone, that lasts up to 10 minutes. By skipping marked flowers carpenter bees can save time and effort by avoiding flowers recently depleted of their resources by other carpenter bees.
Tolerance is the key to appreciating carpenter bees. In spite of all the sawdust created by their nesting activities, they seldom cause severe damage. What damage they do cause is easily offset by their pollination services. Our gardens, fields, orchards, and forests would not be nearly as productive if it were not for their efforts and those of other pollinators. Besides, whether they are energetically visiting flowers, zooming through the air in conjugal bliss, or tirelessly engaged in nest-building, carpenter bees are just darned fascinating animals to watch!
© 2010, A.V. Evans