Friday, October 7, 2011

The Flight of the Carpenter Bee

(originally posted April 22, 2011)

This Wednesday, when I came home from work, I was overjoyed to find my backyard literally abuzz; the carpenter bees have returned! Now these herculean hymenopterans may scare the bee-jezus out of you at first, but if you take a little bit of time to get to know these guys, a lot of your fear or dislike just might be relieved.

If you are wondering if that large buzzing creature you see hanging around your house is a carpenter bee or a similar-looking bumble bee, there is an easy way to tell them apart, even from a distance (which some would prefer!). The abdomen of a bumblebee is fuzzy, while that of a carpenter bee is a shiny black. 
Notice the shiny abdomen?

D'aww...wookit the widdle fuzzy bumblebee abdomen!

You can even visually sex carpenter bees; the males have a yellow or white face and the female’s is all black. Another key difference is that the males are more active and lack a stinger, while the females stay closer to the nest and although they do possess a stinger, they rarely use it on people unless they are highly provoked.

Sadly, most of the times when someone asks me about carpenter bees, it’s about how to kill or deter them from their property. Carpenter bees get their name from the habit of the females making nests in soft wood. And if you just happen to live in an 84 year old house with peeling paint, your home becomes a regular Chateau de Bee. While yes, these bees make a hole and T-shaped tunnel in your wood paneling or deck, the damage is minimal, especially when compared to termites or carpenter ants which  make extensive networks of tunnels. Carpenter bee females are solitary and are only interested in making a single nest (which is reused each year); not in making a meal out of your siding. If you want to keep carpenter bees away from your house, something as simple as a fresh coat of paint is enough to deter most. You can also create a bee house out of untreated, unpainted lumber as a sacrificial offering.

So what is it that I find about the carpenter bee so endearing? It’s the fearless attitude of the males! These guys guard their territories with the attitude of a pitbull with wings. They will fly back and forth through their territories of female-attracting flowers, chasing off anything they can intimidate, whether it be other males, other insects, or even birds. Carpenter bees will even size you up, hovering not much more than a foot from your face, perhaps waiting to see who blinks first (hint: bees don’t have eyelids). Once they have determined they can’t scare you off, they resume their regular patrol.

A male carpenter bee on patrol

This weekend is predicted to be sunny and warm and if so, I know I’ll be outside having a staring contest with a male carpenter bee…if he flies away before I blink, does that count as a win?