Taken from the book, A Guide the Wonderful World Around Us: Notes on Nature by Brannen Basham.
Annoying but important
You know carpenter bees- the large yellow and black insects that bore holes in wood and can sometimes be seen patrolling their territories. These traits have given the carpenter bee a bad rap which it does not deserve. Carpenter bees are amazing native pollinators and are an important part of the ecosystem for several main reasons. These bees pollinate flowers, feed birds, and increase the yield of certain plant species. The damage they do to buildings is annoying, but only just that. They excavate nests, commonly called galleries, along the direction of the wood grain and they actually do surprisingly little structural damage this way; the value of these creatures far outweighs the damage that they could cause. (See the comments section for more details on carpenter bee damage.)
Carpenter bees are built tough
Carpenter bees are the largest bees in North America, and because of that, they are capable of some things that other bees just aren’t built to do. Inclement weather that normally gets in the way of pollination can be overcome by sheer size. Rain showers and wind that would knock smaller insects out of the skies are shrugged off by these buzzing beasts. They are also able to perform admirably in cold weather. These traits let them pick up the slack in pollination during times when other insects simply can’t risk it. Usually, their size is enough to scare away most pests and predators. This has led to carpenter bees being very docile- the females will only sting under extreme circumstances, such as being stepped on. The males, which can be seen hovering in their territories around nest sites or flowers, will usually fly straight towards intruders at high speeds. While this can be intimidating, these males are in fact all talk and do not have stingers. Their large size also makes them easy pickings for hungry birds. Large bees such as carpenter and bumble bees are important food sources for birds, especially in spring where they may be active before other insects.
The buzz on buzz pollination
Carpenter bees have the ability to vibrate their flight muscles at specific frequencies while visiting flowers. Known as buzz pollination, this vibrates the flower and dislodges pollen. Tomatoes, blueberries, eggplants, and cranberries all benefit greatly from this type of pollination and produce larger fruit in greater quantities when buzz pollinated. Honey bees do not possess this ability. Carpenter bees are able to recognize one another and have been found to be able to make it back home after being moved up to 7 miles away. They generally live in semi-social settings involving varying degrees of cooperation between each other.
NC carpenter bees
Two species of carpenter bee are seen in North Carolina, the eastern carpenter bee, and the southern carpenter bee. Both look similar to bumble bees with a shiny black butt- the southern carpenter bee also has a vest of red fuzz. These bees usually nest in the trunks and branches of dead standing trees in a forest. As forests are cut down and manicured, many of these dead trees are the first to be removed. This leaves carpenter bees with very few options for nesting sites. It’s not difficult to see why our houses, decks, and barns look inviting to such a creature. Luckily there are some ways to make your property less appealing. Properly staining and/or painting the exposed wood on your property is first and foremost. While this will not guarantee that carpenter bees won’t move in, it is much less likely if there is no unfinished wood visible. Paired with another possible nesting site nearby such as a pile of wood or dead tree, this may be enough to keep carpenter bees away. These bees seem to prefer pine and cedar wood over other types for their nests. If possible, use another wood for your buildings.
If you have a problem area that you are unsure about, please comment on this post or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to offer my opinion.
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