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Everything You Need To Know About The Carpenter Bee

3 August 2021

The carpenter bee is one of over 220 solitary bee species in the UK. They are so called thanks to their nesting behaviours; carpenter bees burrow into soft wood to lay their eggs.

Unfortunately, as humans expand into rural areas, carpenter bees are more frequently building their nests in the sidings of homes and this can cause serious structural damage.

Everyone knows about bumblebees and honeybees, but not so much about carpenters. Here is everything you need to know about the carpenter bee.

Appearance

A small number of carpenter species are often mistaken for bumblebees, as they have a very similar body size and shape.

Carpenters have a slightly larger and rounder head than bumblebees and a thick band of orange-brown hairs covering their thorax - the body segment between the head and abdomen. Most will have a small spot between their wings which is black and hairless.

While bumblebees have a hairy, striped abdomen, carpenter bees have a hairless, shiny abdomen. Their wings are translucent and appear a slightly tinted brown colour when seen in bright sunlight.

Carpenter bees have 6 segmented legs. The first segment is hairless, while the lower segments of the legs are covered in fine black hairs.

There is no size hierarchy with carpenter bees. Both male and female carpenters can be anywhere from half an inch to one inch long. In comparison, honeybee size is affected by rank, with the queen being the largest bee in the colony.

Lifestyle of a Carpenter Bee

Carpenter bees are solitary, constructing a nest only for themselves and, in the case of females, for their eggs. Males often hover outside nests, flying at insects that come too close.

As a species, carpenter bees are very docile. Male carpenters are stingless and while females do have stings, they very rarely use them.

Carpenter bees seldom relocate. A female bee will dig a tunnel in a tree or the siding of a building and create 4-6 brood cells to lay her eggs. The male guards the nest from other insects.

Carpenter Bee Life Cycle

Carpenter bees begin life as a fertilised egg, each laid into their own brood cell within the female bee's nest. The female will provide 'bee bread' for each cell, made from pollen and nectar.

After laying each egg, she caps the cells with a layer of wood pulp, which is essentially regurgitated wood collected during the tunnel digging process.

Larvae hatch from the egg in early summer, feeding off the pollen left in their cells by the female bee.

Towards late summer, the larvae are fattened up and ready to pupate. The larvae will weave a cocoon which surrounds their body and gradually hardens. Within the cocoon, the larvae undergo metamorphosis.

They develop a hardened exoskeleton, wings, the formation of the head, eyes and antennae, as well as segmented legs and, in the case of females, a stinger.

Once the larvae have metamorphosed into an adult, they break out of their brood cell and exit the nest tunnel.

Newly hatched carpenter bees will immediately begin looking for food. They spend fall months storing pollen and nectar so they have provisions for winter. They will then return to their tunnel nest or construct their own so they have a safe place to overwinter.

Adult bees emerge as winter turns to spring and they will begin searching for a mate. They take part in a 'bobbing' dance, which looks like a small bee swarm. This typically consists of 4 or 5 female carpenter bees and approximately 12 males.

Males will follow females into the air and attempt to mate with them. For mating to be successful, a male carpenter bee must position his abdomen directly over the female. This all occurs during flight and it is common to see 3 carpenter bees trying to fly together as the males attempt to mate with the female.

Male carpenter bees have an lifespan of one year and will die shortly after mating. Female carpenter bees can live 2 years or more and will use the same nest from the previous mating season.

Nest Construction

A fertilised female carpenter bee will begin tunnelling into a tree, preferably a soft wood such as cedar, cypress and pine. Unfortunately for home owners, most wood used in construction is soft wood.

A carpenter bee may choose to make their nest in the siding of a house, doorframes, window sills and roof eaves. It is also common to see telephone poles and wooden bridges with carpenter nests burrowed into them.

The female will use her mandibles to chew away the wood, forming a perfectly circular opening about half an inch in diameter. Once the entrance is complete, she will begin digging downward at a 90° angle from the entrance tunnel.

As she digs, the female will add brood cells to lay her eggs and storage cells for food. Completed tunnel nests are known as galleries.

Since there is no hierarchy among carpenter bees and females typically live longer than males, a female will use the same tunnel each season, adding further brood chambers and extending the length of the tunnel.

Diet

Given their name, you would be forgiven for thinking that carpenter bees eat wood. In fact, they consume nectar and pollen, just like honeybees and bumblebees.

Larvae are fed 'bee bread' which is produced by combining pollen and nectar with bee saliva.

Both nectar and pollen contain protein, carbohydrates, lipids, vitamins and minerals, which all play a vital role in bee health and development.

Carpenter bees collect pollen by a method called buzz pollination. They land on a plant or flower and flap their wings at a rapid rate. The vibrations caused by the bee's wings helps to loosen the pollen and makes it easier for the bee to collect.

The bee uses their proboscis - a straw-like apendage protruding from their mouth - to collect the loosened nectar.

Since carpenter bees are solitary, they do not need to report their nectar or pollen finds to other bees. Females take their food back to the gallery for storage or to feed their offspring.

Just like any other living being, bees require water. They will drink water droplets of leaves or drink from shallow puddles.

You can help carpenter bees in your local area by placing a shallow dish of water in a shady area of your garden and add a few stones. The stones provide a safe surface for the bees to rest while drinking so they don't drown.

Conservation

Carpenter bees are important pollinators, so it is important that their numbers to not decrease too greatly. Our food supply relies on pollinators such as bees, wasps and butterflies in order to thrive.

If carpenter bees were to go extinct, it would mean huge losses for worldwide food supplies.

Currently, carpenter bees are faring better than social species, as they only have to support themselves. Social species, like honeybees, have to support an entire hive.

While they are not facing a direct threat of extinction, human activity poses a serious risk to carpenter bees and their ability to successfully reproduce.

CO2 emissions are causing a pollen shortage, which means less food availability for the bees. This is turn means fewer bees live to reproductive age and this would cause a drop in the population.

Climate change is slowly changing the growth cycles of certain plants, causing them to grow out of season. This means that when carpenter bees emerge from hibernation in later winter and early spring, there is often not enough food to support the local population.

Pesticides used in gardens and farmland are having a negative effect on carpenter bees and their ability to reproduce. A 3 year study carried out on farmland in Canada found that soil pesticides can reduce will bee reproduction by almost 90%.

By far the biggest threat facing carpenter bees is pest control. Due to their habit of constructing their galleries in manmade structures, many carpenter bees are being exterminated.

Their tunnelling behaviour causes severe structural damage to buildings if left unchecked and often the quickest way to deal with this issue is to use a pest control service.

The best way to prevent carpenter bees constructing their nests on your property is to replace as much wood construction for hard wood. This includes roof eaves, windowsills, doorframes, porches and decks, garden furniture and sheds.

Carpenter bees prefer soft wood like Cypress and Cedar because it is a much softer wood and therefore easier to tunnel through.

If you find that you have a carpenter bee nesting on your property, choose a pest control service or beekeeper that will remove the bees safely and find a safe place to release them.

This helps to protect the local populations of bees and all the plant species that they pollinate during their lifetime.

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