Carpenter Bees Explored: Are They Friends or Foes?

Carpenter Bees are a fascinating species, but have a bad reputation for drilling into wooden structures causing damage. Unbeknownst to most people, they are a highly interesting bunch and vital to our surroundings. Let me shed some light on carpenter bees.

David Horstmann

— 10 min read

What does a Carpenter Bee look like?

Carpenter bees serve unique ecological roles and positively contribute to pollination and biodiversity. These solitary insect woodworkers are usually gentle and docile. This makes their presence in gardens and yards a topic of interest for anyone. Are you interested in these insects and their behaviour? You’ve come to the right place, my friend!

Carpenter Bees have a bad reputation

Unfortunately, Carpenter Bees have a bad reputation. This is mainly due to their nesting habit which involves drilling tunnels and caverns into wooden structures. Their carpentry skills often raise concerns about the integrity of wooden buildings and outdoor structures. But believe me, carpenter bees are more destructive than they are.

Let me try to shed some light on common misconceptions and share some in-depth knowledge about these interesting insects with you. Who knows, maybe you’ll see carpenter bees in a different light afterwards?

Understanding Carpenter Bees

Where do Carpenter Bees live?

Carpenter bees are found in various ecosystems, including tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions. They can be found in North- and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and some parts of the Middle East. With a significant presence in the United States, the Eastern carpenter bee is a common species in the eastern part of the country.

What does a Carpenter Bee look like?

Carpenter bees are solitary insects. They belong to a subfamily called Xylocopinae. Carpenter bees are distributed worldwide. They’re come in all kinds of different shapes, colours and amount of fur. There’s also carpenter bees with green or purplish colours. They measure about ½ to 1 inch in length and have robust bodies.

Being one of the biggest bee species, they look confusingly like bumblebees. They are often mistaken for other pollinators, too.

Carpenter Bees vs. Bumblebees

At first glance, carpenter bees bear very much resemblance to bumblebees. Mainly it is due to their size. Upon closer inspection there is a couple of striking differences, tough. The main one is the abdomen. Carpenter Bees have a shiny, hairless belly. In comparison, look at the picture below. Can you see the hairy butt of the bumblebee? There you go – that’s the main difference!

Carpenter Bee vs. Bumblebee

Another big difference is the lifestyles of the two. While bumblebees, like honeybees, are social insects and form colonies, the carpenter bees are solitary insects.

Carpenter Bees vs. Honeybees

Carpenter bees are often mistaken for honeybees, too. Why? I don’t know really. The differences in the two species are strikingly obvious! The two bee species differ in one major aspect. Their size. Carpenter bees are much, much larger than honeybees. A honeybee measures about 5/8 of an inch. In comparison, a carpenter bee can grow up to 1 inch long. Carpenter bees are solitary insects and do not reside in colonies with a queen bee like honeybees.

Carpenter Bee vs. Honeybee

Carpenter Bees vs. Wasps or Yellowjackets

The appearance of wasps also very clearly sets them apart from carpenter bees. Wasps exhibit a slender and more elongated physique. Their bodies are adorned with vibrant patterns of black and yellow. Also here, a distinct difference in size can be observed. And as bumble- and honeybees, wasps are social insects. Carpenter bees live a solitary life.

Carpenter Bee vs. Wasp or Yellowjacket

The Carpenter Bee Life Cycle

Mating Habits

As mentioned before, carpenter bees are solitary creatures. However, they do come together to mate. Mating usually takes place in April. The male bees will emerge before the females. The mating occurs in flight. The male will grasp onto the females’ back and transfer its sperm into the female’s reproductive tract. The mated female carpenter bee will then search for a suitable nesting location.

Stages of Development

The stages of development of carpenter bees consists of four main stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The process begins in late spring or early summer when the female lays eggs inside her nest. These eggs are placed within individual cells. Then they are separated by a mixture of regurgitated nectar, and chewed wood particles known as partitions. After about a week, the eggs hatch into larvae. The larvae feed on a combination of pollen and nectar.

As the larvae grow, they go through a series of molts, eventually transforming into pupae. During this stage, the physical transformation into adult bees takes place. Finally, the adult carpenter bees emerge from their cells. The newly born carpenter bees are ready to begin their lives as foragers and pollinators.

Pollinating Abilities

Carpenter bees play a crucial role in the ecosystem and are excellent pollinators. They practice the so-called buzz pollination. They rapidly vibrate their flight muscles to release pollen from flowers. This method is particularly effective for plants like tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and the like. So the next time you see a carpenter bee in your veggie garden, be nice!

The Nesting Habits of Carpenter Bees

Preferred Nesting Sites

Carpenter bees are experts when it comes to woodwork – hence their name. They typically select nesting sites that provide them with access to structural wood like decks, eaves, buildings, and outdoor furniture.

Carpenter Bees peek out of their entrance hole to their nest

They are also known to target wood siding, shingles, soffits, doors, and window sills. The bees prefer to nest in wood that has been unpainted or untreated. They may still inhabit painted or stained surfaces. Structural components and other materials with an exposed wood grain are especially attractive to carpenter bees.

How Carpenter Bees create their Nest

When a carpenter bee finds a suitable nesting site, it begins the process of excavating wood by drilling small holes into the surface. The bee uses its strong mandibles to chew through the wood. This creates the entrance to the nest. Depending on the species of carpenter bee, the entrance hole might be perfectly round or of irregular shape. Once the entrance has been established, the bee begins to tunnel deeper into the wood where it will lay its eggs.

Carpenter Bee boring into wood
A carpenter bee boring into soft wood
Carpenter Bee in wood

Tunnels and Galleries

As carpenter bees burrow into the wood, their tunnels may extend several inches or even several feet long. The tunnels, also known as galleries, are partitioned into individual cells. This is where the female bee lays her eggs. Each cell contains an egg, along with a mixture of pollen and nectar that will serve as food for the developing larvae. To protect the eggs and larvae, the female seals each cell with chewed wood pulp, creating a partition between them.

Over time, continuous tunnelling and nesting by carpenter bee populations can cause damage to wood structures. However, the damage caused by carpenter bees is usually localized and rarely impact the structural integrity of the affected wood.

What does a Carpenter Bee Nest look like?

One of the primary indicators of a carpenter bee nest is the presence of entrance holes in unfinished, raw, or weathered wood. These holes are typically about 1 inch deep and serve as entry points for the bees. Another sign of carpenter bee activity is the presence of sawdust piles on the ground. There may be excrement stains on the wood below their holes as well.

Extent of Damage

Although a single carpenter bee infestation may not cause severe damage, repeated infestations over time can lead to cumulative damage. If you fear damage by the carpenter bee visitors, feel free to address the problem.

Managing Carpenter Bees

Preventing Infestations

There are ways to prevent carpenter bees from feeling too homely around your property. One of them is to minimize areas where they can nest. Here’s a couple of efficient strategies:

  • Seal exposed wood surfaces with paint or stain to deter them from boring into the material

  • Use hardwoods, such as oak or maple, instead of softwoods like pine and cedar, which are more attractive to carpenter bees as they are easier for them to bore into.

  • Inspect regularly for signs of infestations, such as small holes and sawdust piles, and taking appropriate measures immediately to address them.

  • Install physical barriers, such as wire mesh or metal screens, over vulnerable areas to prevent access.

Carpenter Bee Treatment Options are limited

Treatment often involves pesticides, chemicals, or acid. I’m not a fan of those approaches, so I won’t dive further into the topic. If you really must, feel free to contact the local pest control to help you with carpenter bee related problems. Nevertheless, there is one treatment I can recommend. It’s carpenter bee traps.

How Carpenter Bee Traps work

Carpenter bee traps exploit the natural behaviour of carpenter bees. They are often constructed as wooden boxes or frames with holes and tunnels already drilled into them. They mimic the carpenter bees’ natural nesting sites and can be mounted close to an area where they are active.

The pre-drilled holes are alluring to carpenter bees. They will enter the trap and navigate the tunnels. As they venture further into the trap, they eventually encounter difficulty escaping because of its design. Make sure you buy a design that captures the carpenter bees alive! Once trapped, you can relocate the bees to a different location alive and well.

Maybe you can provide them an alternative nesting site, such as a homemade bee hotel?

Do Carpenter Bees sting?

Apart from damage to wooden structures, one of the concerns people have about carpenter bees is the potential for stinging. It is important to understand that only female carpenter bees can sting, and they do so infrequently.

Male carpenter bees do not possess stingers and therefore cannot sting at all. Female carpenter bees have stingers but will only use them when they feel threatened or provoked. In most cases, carpenter bees are not aggressive and are unlikely to sting humans.

How to Treat a Carpenter Bee Sting

If you are stung by a carpenter bee, the initial sensation is a sharp pain and burning at the site of the sting. To treat a carpenter bee sting, follow these steps:

  • Clean the sting area: Gently wash the affected area with soap and water to reduce the risk of infection.

  • Apply cold compresses: Use a cold pack or a cloth filled with ice to soothe the pain and reduce swelling. Apply it for 15-20 minutes, then remove it for at least 20 minutes before reapplying.

  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers: Non-prescription pain relievers can help to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation.

  • Keep an eye on the affected area: Monitor the sting site for any signs of infection or an allergic reaction. If you experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing, swelling of the face or throat, or a rapid heartbeat, seek medical attention immediately.

It is important to remember that carpenter bees are not typically aggressive. Taking precautions to avoid disturbing their nests or provoking them can greatly reduce the risk of being stung.

Carpenter Bees are your friends!

I hope I could reveal a more nuanced perspective on those cool (not so) little creatures. They are not as bad as their reputation might suggest. If you adopt some preventive measures, you and carpenter bees can coexist peacefully. I think we must appreciate these creatures for their role in nature. If one has a more balanced view of carpenter bees, we can continue to share our space with them. Carpenter bees are your friends, not your foes.