Carpenter Bee Natural History


Carpenter bees are species of bee that fall under the genus Xylocopa. There are about 500 known species of carpenter bee in the world and they exist on every continent except for Antarctica. The name “carpenter bee” comes from their behavior of burrowing into wood for nesting purposes. They are often confused for bumble bees as they have a similar size and coloring. Because they burrow through wood, carpenter bees can be pests, damaging and weakening wooden structures and tree farms.

carpenter bee
An Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica). Credit: M. Smith via Flickr

Most species carpenter bees are about ½ inch in diameter. It is often difficult to tell species apart as they are normally black, or black with yellow and white patches. Species can be differentiated in virtue of subtle morphological differences in genital or wing shape. They have shiny abdomens, which is one way you can tell them apart from bumblebees.

Male carpenter bees tend to have larger eyes than females, which plays a role in sexual selection. Both males and females have entirely hairy hind legs, but only females have stingers. Though not aggressive, female carpenter bees are capable of delivering a painful sting if threatened. They have small mouth parts that they use like teeth to chew away at wood. Using their mandibles, they will bore small circular holes just large enough for them to comfortably fit it. Carpenter bees bore by positioning their jaws and vibrating their bodies to chip away at wood, like a tiny drill.

Despite spending a lot of their time chewing on wood, carpenter bees do not actually eat wood. They feed on nectar and are an important source of pollination for many plants. Like bumble bees, when they feed, pollen sticks to their fur and is carried from plant to plant.

carpenter bee with nectar
Carpenter Bee Sucking Nectar Credit: WikiCommons

Unlike the highly socially organized honey bee, carpenter bees are generally considered solitary insects, though some species live in social groups with limited division of labor. Solitary species of carpenter bee are gregarious, meaning that they live in groups where there is no specific social organization. Generally, groups of carpenter bees live in the bored-out inside of wooden objects. These nests can get quite complex, with branching tunnels and multiple chambers.

Carpenter bees will lay their eggs in the tunnels of these nests where stored pollen serves as a food source for the soon-to-hatch larvae. Once hatched, the larvae go through a developmental process and mature into adults. It takes about 5-7 weeks for the larvae to mature, at which point the emerge as adults and go out to feed and reproduce.

We offer two species of Carpenter Bees for sale.

Interesting Facts About Carpenter Bees

  • Some plants rely exclusively on the pollination activity of carpenter bees, like the maypop flower (Passiflora incarnata).
  • Woodpeckers are one of carpenter bees greatest predators. They are drawn to the sound of the bees vibrating and boring through wood.
  • Some carpenter bees will cut open the bottom of flowers that are too deep for them to reach the nectar.
  • Carpenter bees spread pollen by vibrating their bodies to shake pollen dust off.