Why and How to Coexist With Carpenter Bees, Our Pollinating Superstars
Updated: Mar 15
The responses to a recent post on a neighborhood forum about carpenter bees was horrifying. One person gleefully suggested torturing the bees by putting a common household staple in the holes so it would coat the bees in it on their way out of the holes and they would die a slow and painful death!
My husband who is all in on our rewilded yard is still a little bit alarmed every time he sees a little sawdust pile made by carpenter bees under our deck railings. To try and learn more about carpenter bees and make a better case for why and how to be more accepting of carpenter bees I did a little digging. Most of the internet sites that popped up are from pest control companies and many are weirdly aimed at children. One “educational” site for children explicitly explains that carpenter bees are “not cute, they are pests”. How cynical to influence children to not consider a carpenter bee’s harmless bumbling about as funny or cute in any way!
The main suggestion about carpenter bees from all sources, including the pest control companies, cooperative extensions, and educational institutions include exterminating them with environmentally toxic pesticides. A few offers less “toxic” but equally deadly solutions I won’t even mention! An article with information about carpenter bees from a school of entomology had an alarming warning about the pesticides it suggests not being legal in every state. I’ll take a few holes in my fence every time over pesticides that are so dangerous, they may or may not even be legal where I live!
The following information is a basic plea for why and how to coexist with carpenter bees. Please share this far and wide to help create a deeper appreciation and interest in carpenter bees and a desire to attract and protect these fascinating pollinators instead of killing them...and to help fill the internet with positive carpenter bee content!
Identifying Carpenter Bees
Children are always delighted and amused when adults teach them that carpenter bees have “shiney hineys” and bumble bees have “fuzzy butts”…but maybe more adults need to be amused by this distinction!
The Differences Between Male and Female Carpenter Bees
Male carpenter bees have yellow dots on the forehead and females are all black.
Male carpenter bees don’t sting since their stingers are actually modified reproductive organs.
The males are the ones awkwardly hovering around and checking you out. This is a defense mechanism to ward off predators and defend their territory so the nearby females can take care of their offspring. They’re all bumble and no bite!
Although the female carpenter bees are not aggressive, they can sting. Fortunately, you are most likely to encounter the males. Females are usually too busy nesting will only sting if directly attacked.
The Lifecycle of the Carpenter Bee
Basically, adult carpenter bees overwinter in wood tunnels, emerge and mate in the spring. The females then excavate a burrow if there isn’t a previous tunnel, leave a dough-like mix of pollen and nectar they make called bee bread in each cell they lay their eggs in, then seal it with regurgitated wood pulp. The adult bees die during the summer. The developing larvae mature over the next few weeks and feed on the bee bread until later in the summer when a new generation of bees emerge and pollinate flowers before returning to the wood in the fall for hibernation.
Carpenter bees return to the same nesting site each year and tend to use holes that have already been constructed instead of new ones.
Carpenter bees construct their nesting galleries in the direction of the wood grain and do surprisingly little structural damage. Often carpenter bees are blamed for natural time-related wood decay because their holes are visible from year to year. Years ago we had an arbor that we thought the carpenter bees ruined but we realized when we took it down that the reason the structure was falling apart was that the wood was rotting, and the carpenter bees were merely taking advantage of the soft, rotting wood like they would if it was a rotting tree stump.
Carpenter Bee Trivia
There are over 500 species of carpenter bees around the world with 5 in North America. They are found in on every continent except Antarctica.
In Atlanta where I live the Easter carpenter bee or Xylocopa virginica is the most common carpenter bee.
Carpenter bees are solitary so you will not find a large colony of them. They hibernate alone
Contrary to popular belief, carpenter bees do not eat wood, they feed on plant nectar and pollen.
The sawdust-like material you see where carpenter bees are making their holes is called frass.
Often other types of small solitary pollinating bees and wasps are sometimes seen visiting abandoned carpenter bee nests. These beneficial insects seldom cause problems and are usually scavenging on remaining pollen or using the tunnels for shelter.
How to Offer Alternative Nesting Spots for Carpenter Bees and Naturally Deter Them from Your Structures
The most habitat friendly solution to deter carpenter bees without harming them is to offer them an alternative nesting spot so you won’t miss out on having them pollinate your plants! In a wildlife friendly yard where no pesticides or yard chemicals are used, native plants create natural biodiversity, and healthy yard practices such as brush piles exist, carpenter bees become another member of the ecosystem where everything is kept in balance. For example, insects such as the tiger bee fly lay eggs in the same nesting cavity as the carpenter bee eggs so their larvae can parasitize the carpenter larvae. I saw my first tiger bee fly around the wooden railing of my back deck poking around carpenter bee holes only after I naturescaped my yard.
In the wild carpenter bees make their homes in the branches of dead standing trees. If you leave a snag (dead standing tree or at least a six-foot section of a dead tree) in your yard or make a pile of fallen limbs away from your structures, carpenter bees will happily make their home there. I actively encourage carpenter bees to come to my yard by placing large pieces of fallen branches I pick up after windstorms and placing them around the edges of my yard. I also have a few brush piles hidden around my yard. If you don’t have many fallen branches from overstory trees, you can get untreated soft wood like pine from a hardware store and put outside away from your home for the carpenter bees.
Carpenter don’t usually tunnel on painted wood but prefer unpainted, weathered soft wood such as cedar and pine. In a pinch they may bore through stained or preserved wood. To deter carppenter bees from wood you don’t want them nesting in, maintain painted, not stained surfaces, and make sure to pre-fill any nail holes and crack in caulk when building outside structures with wood.
Making a citrus spray by boiling and cooling citrus peels, cooling and straining the mixture, then spraying the wood you don’t want carpenter bees nesting in. Spray after the bees emerge in the spring and before they nest or in the late summer and early fall before they return to the nests to hibernate. Don’t do this when they are actively nesting! Some people swear just rubbing citrus on the wood deters the carpenter bees.
Almond oil is another deterrent to place around the holes once the bees have left them, not when there are bees in there.
Apparently, wind chimes on a porch can deter carpenter bees from setting up shop nearby.
There are fake wasps nests you can buy on the internet to hang near your porch or the eaves of your home to frighten carpenter bees away from nesting nearby because wasps can kill carpenter bees and eat their larvae. There are also DIY tutorial about how to make paper bag wasp decoys if you research them. People swear by these methods. I will share that I did try this one year and I have an adorable video of a carpenter attempting to build a nest in my hanging paper bag filled with newspaper!
My friend Leslie has what I think is the sweetest alternative for carpenter bee nests. She lets the carpenter bees enjoy a soft wood table on her porch. They prefer this over any stained or treated wood on or around her house and she gets to enjoy watching their nesting activities up close.
Try to stop and consider the big picture for nature before eliminating native carpenter bees from your yard. Remind yourself and anyone who complains about them that the benefit of these cute and valuable creatures far outweighs their “peskiness” or cosmetic and inconvenient damage done to wood!
***Why We Need to Protect Carpenter Bees***
Like all living creatures, carpenter bees are part of the food web. They are a food source for birds and other predators. Eliminate them and you’re destroying the fragile ecosystem of your yard and contributing to the alarming insect and bird decline going on now.
In nature, when carpenter bees tunnel into soft, dry, already rotting wood they speed decomposition and help recycle nutrients back into the soil.
Carpenter Bees are vital and necessary supersonic pollinators! They can pollinate harder to pollinate inverted flowers of plants such as blueberries, tomatoes and eggplants by actually vibrating while pollinating! This unique buzz pollination or sonication helps dislodge the pollen in flowers. The fruits pollinated by carpenter bees are also larger! Some farmers know how valuable carpenter bees are and encourage them to live nearby by providing blocks of wood attractive to them and by not using pesticides that harm them in any way.
Carpenter bees are generalist pollinators meaning they pollinate a wide variety of plants. They are also active pollinating the longest time. They are often one of the last pollinators in the fall.
The Greenburgh Nature Center blog explains why carpenter bees are also the best pollinators of milkweed which makes their existence directly related to survival of the popular monarch butterfly.
Carpenter bees are the largest native bees in North America (in addition to the bumble bee queens) so they are often only bees that can still fly and pollinate in unfavorable weather conditions that smaller pollinators can’t.
Their population is stable and not yet as concerning as bumblebees, but native carpenter bees face the same risks of habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change as all our other native bees. We need change our point of view about carpenter bees and try and include them as one of the native bees we need to protect before they are in crisis!
Note - there are no affiliate links on Nurture Native Nature. Click the highlighted text throughout the posts for links to references, explanations or examples that might be interesting or helpful. I have worked hard in this post to included as many affirmational carpenter bee resources as possible for you to click and share. This wasn’t an easy task because the pest control companies seem to currently dominate the perspective on carpenter bees!