Google “Carpenter bees,” and the Internet will assume you forgot to type “how to kill.” It will provide endless hits on endless ways to poison, trap, starve, drown, squish, and otherwise kill Carpenter bees.
Confession: I’ve tried them all.
That was BEFORE naturalist training, and before years of looking around at the goings-on in my own yard.
I now know that Carpenter bees are not evil. They are native insects crucial to our foodweb. They are important pollinators. They are food for predators.
Carpenter bees have every right to exist and to do their thing.
“Their thing,” however, makes holes in my house. I hate holes in my house.
I’m going to be like Google and assume that you, too, hate holes in your house.
So, let me share one solution: a way to let Carpenter bees do their thing next to your house, but not in it. It is a genuinely humane “control” method. It’s been around for years, but I hadn’t tried it till now.
It’s so simple: provide alternative housing. Give the bees a nice, fat board; a 4×4 post; or any raw lumber thick enough to scream “curb appeal” to a house-hunting mama bee.
My success was accidental. I needed a platform to raise flowerpots off the driveway, so I laid spare boards across two concrete blocks. The next day, I noticed a hill of white shavings on the driveway, directly under a plank.
I poked my phone underneath, reversed the camera, and took a selfie of what I knew would be there: a perfectly round, 1/2″ hole.
While I watched, the hill got taller—a Carpenter bee was inside the board right then, working—so I ran to get my tree stethoscope. And happy day—there I was, kneeling on the driveway with a stethoscope pressed to an old board, listening to the busy mandibles of a bee chewing a tunnel for her babies.
The best part is that she was chewing an old board: not my old house.
A Carpenter bee chews a tunnel one inch deep, and then makes a 90 degree turn, where she will chew chambers for her eggs: one chamber per egg. In each chamber, she leaves provisions (pollen) and then spits a door made of sawdust(!). Hatchlings get food and privacy while they grow. Eventually, adult bees chew their way out, starting from the outermost chamber. The first one out was the last one in.
After adults emerge in summer, the tunnels will likely be reused, either as new nesting galleries next spring or as shelter for overwintering bees, or both. Sometimes other cavity-nesters forage or build inside.
I learned last year that there’s at least one nifty predator who flies around the neighborhood searching for these holes—especially near wooden mailbox posts—but that’s a story for another time.
As is the story of my Carpenter bee epiphany: the rather selfish reason I finally stopped murdering bees.
My next experiment will be on purpose: a recent storm gave us free logs galore:
My husband sweetly arranged several in the front yard. Neighbors will hate them, but will Carpenter bees love them? More than they love an old plank?
For sure the decomposers will, and the skinks and maybe even a woodpecker, so the logs are here to stay.
There are many species of carpenter bees, but I’m talking about the big-ass, buzzy one common here in Nashville: the Eastern Carpenter bee / Xylocopa virginica.
-Female Carpenter bees only sting if you mess with them, big-time.
-Male Carpenter bees don’t have a stinger.
-Male or female? Only males have a big yellow square on their face.
-Carpenter bee or Bumblebee? Bumble abdomens are fuzzy. Carpenter abdomens are shiny black.
More info about Carpenter bee lifecycle and behavior is here, at the U.S. Forest Service. Not about our particular species, but the Xylocopa genus in general. (It was hard to find a good source that didn’t end with “how to kill.”)
The Xerces Society (for Invertebrate Conservation) shows the value of logs and stumps at Five Ways to Increase Nesting Habitat for Native Bees.
About the author:
My Instagram posts are 100% nature, and most of it the Sidewalk kind.
No shots of my teacup unless there is a plant or animal floating in it.
I’m not fond of facebook, but some people are on it who aren’t on Instagram, so I post nature things there from time to time.
Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist in Nashville, the hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday natural wonders amid every habitat loss, and her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, City Creatures, The Fourth River and other journals.
Her current project is a book of linked essays called Paradise in a Parking Lot.