Carpenter Bees: The Gentle Giants
Some Bees, including the peaceful CarpenterClick thumbnail to view full-size
He's calm and curious
The Beloved Carpenter Bees.
You can be standing somewhere on the South Baja Peninsula in Mexico minding your own business and enjoying the morning sunshine, when suddenly you are confronted by a large, black insect hovering about 6 inches from your flinching face and seeming to peer earnestly into your eyes. The uninitiated might yelp, bat at the intruder and backpedal right into the waiting arms of an obliging cholla cactus, which will do more immediate damage than any bee.
For that is what this gentle creature is, a Carpenter Bee and about twice as big as any bumble bee you have ever seen before - up to 25 mm in length. They are from the family Xylocopa, and there are more than 500 species all over the planet.
Carpenters can sting, as can the similar bumble bees, but you would really have to upset one before it did. It’s the stingless male bee that does the hovering; he is just curious about you; if you keep still, it will hover in place for a few seconds and then zoom away to find a more interesting subject for its attentions. It may have been seeing if you were made of wood to make a nest, or it liked the smell of your perfume. Or it might have been amazed that something as ugly as you could exist without the rest of your species removing you! Most likely is its persistent attention could have been a mild warning that you were too near its existing tunnel.
Carpenter Bees are often confused with the generally smaller Bumble Bees. Usually, the carpenter has the shiny abdomen while the bumble, the hairy one. The carpenters are also more soberly colored, often black, while bumble bees are often yellow or orange or even striped. Like bumble bees, the carpenters are capable of multiple stinging; only the female has a sting and will rarely use it unless her nest is threatened, they are usually extremely placid even when you gently shoo them away, unlike bloody wasps!
Carpenter Bees, as the name suggests, are wood bees, in that they make a tunnel into a suitable tree or building, adding chambers inside. They don’t eat wood, however, sticking to pollen and nectar. They are mainly solitary, but some female members of a family may share one nest, a separate compartment for each daughter or sibling. They can do considerable damage to older, weathered buildings, but a coat of paint will keep them out. Similarly, trees with bark attached won’t be of interest to them. They dig with strong mandibles while vibrating their bodies, leaving a tell-tale pile of sawdust and dirt at the foot of the tree or timber where they have tunneled. Several smaller species nest in the ground in burrows.
Carpenter bees are, like all bees, very important pollinators: in Baja California, this means they are vital to the cactus as it flowers.
The Carpenter bee is not seen as the largest bee. This honor goes to the Indonesian bee, Megachile Pluto, which had been thought extinct until discoveries were made later. This is as big as the smallest hummingbird: up to 2 inches long with a wingspan of over 3 inches. That’s some bee!
Incidentally, you may have Melissophobia if you are alarmed by the carpenter or any bee, and the more understandable Spheksophobia if you run screaming from wasps. I might add that I have no fear of bees, hornets or wasps and have never been stung aggressively by any of them…too ugly maybe? (“If you think I am going to put my nice shiny stinger in THAT, Beatrice...I wouldn't touch it with yours!”)