Robert Miller: The underrated carpenter bees
In May and June, when carpenter bees buzz on the edge of my woodshed, my dog Bella jumps in the air and tries to catch one with her mouth.
At the moment the scene is calm. But in a few weeks when a new breed hatches there will be a new generation that will entertain my amusing dog.
The bees – big, massive, harmless and antisocial – will keep busy and fly past Bella. They are excellent pollinators of garden plants such as tomatoes and eggplants. They are good for blueberry plants and flowers.
And they are abundant.
“They’re as common as dirt,” said Gail Ridge, an entomologist at Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven.
But people don’t really like them for various reasons.
“They are perceived as annoying,” said Laura Saucier, wildlife biologist at the state energy and environmental protection ministry.
As a result, pest control experts receive calls through them in the spring.
“We work with them quite a bit,” said Dave Bisallon, owner of Envirocare Pest Control, which serves Western Connecticut. “We get calls in May and in the first two weeks of June.”
But they will come back.
“They’ll be back in August,” said Jim Miller of Yale Pest Control, which has offices across the state.
The human anger is understandable.
For one thing, the male carpenter bees seem fearless when flying around with diving bombs defending their territory and partner.
Second, the females will eat perfectly round holes a quarter inch to half an inch in diameter in dashboards, overhangs, and decks to create a nest. People don’t want their property to be damaged by drilling like this.
This is primarily an aesthetic concern. Carpenter bees do not eat wood and do not nearly do the damage that termites can do. And once a female has created a nesting site, a new generation will be content to reuse it instead of starting the hard work over.
But, said Bisallon, if woodpeckers find the nest, they can tear the boards apart to get to the larvae inside.
“You can just kill a fascia board,” he said.
That said, carpenter bees – a native pollinator and our largest bee – make appealing buzzers.
They look like bumblebees but have a smooth black belly – bumblebees are hairy.
They used to rely on dead trees as nesting sites. Because people gave them such beautiful material to work with and felled the dead trees, they adapted to us.
As with other bees, the females do the job. You eat the round holes through the wood, then go back and eat 6 to 8 inch channels from those holes that extend at a 90 degree angle.
The accuracy of their work is a miracle.
“Do you have a small ruler with you?” Said the DEEP sauceier.
The females lay their eggs one after the other in these channels. They feed each egg with pollen as a food source and then use masticated wood to seal a single cell.
The Ridge of the Experimental Stations said this could be a problem if the eggs hatch all at once and those at the end of the channels get stuck.
Instead, she said, hormone chemistry rules. The last ones laid are the first to hatch, so that they line up one after the other and clear the space.
“They hatch one at a time,” she said.
The males, on the other hand, are not the lazy honey beehive drones just hanging around waiting to fertilize the queen. Instead, Ridge said, they do their territorial dance both before and after mating to protect the nest.
But they’re all buzz and not a bite – they have no spines.
The females have stringers, but Ridge said they use them very rarely. As far as stinging insects are concerned, they are extremely unaggressive.
When they collect pollen, they do so by landing on a flower and then using their pectoral muscles to create ultrasonic vibrations that shake the pollen away – known as “buzz pollination”.
In contrast to honey bees or hornets, they are loners. Although adult females can hibernate with younger carpenter bees, they do not form colonies or family ties.
Pest control experts use insecticides to kill the bees. Bisallon from Envirocare said people can also get a coat hanger and stick it in the ducts and that way clear out the nest.
Or you can just let them zoom around to improve their tomato harvest.
“They’re big, they’re impressive, and they’re pretty docile,” said DEEP’s saucier. “I find her very interesting.”
Contact Robert Miller at [email protected]