Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

June 5, 2009

This Ain’t No Bumbling Bee

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:23 pm

Even though the Carpenter Bee and the Bumble Bee look similar, there’s a world of difference between them. Take a good close look next time you see a big bumbling bee probing a flower and you may find yourself looking at a craftsmen. Carpenter Bees are large hairy yellow coated bees that can be identified by their shiny black abdomen (see above). Bumble Bees have fuzz covered black abdomens and therefore don’t give off a glimmer of reflected light. Both bees are common, but the Carpenter rarely gets the recognition it deserves.

You can afford to get a close look at a Carpenter. The females have a functional stinger, but are hesitant to put it to work. The males tend to act aggressively, but because they are sting-less they can’t back up their bravado!  If  the bee is nectaring at a flower and displays a patch of yellow pollen on it’s legs,( like the one shown below), it’s a non-aggressive female.  She will ignore you and allow you to watch as she busily gathers nectar and pollen, but she will not linger at any given flower.  Fine hairs on the hind legs form a pollen basket where the sticky yellow stuff can be collected and carried aloft. Her task is to gather an ample supply and quickly get it into temporary storage. If you have enough time in your day, it might be a rewarding task to follow one of these industrious gals home in order to see one of her spectacular carpentry creations.

Carpenter Bees store this pollen in carefully constructed tunnels for the purpose of raising a brood of young. These tunnels are chewed into solid wood and are easily identified by their perfectly round 1/2 inch entrances (see below). The holes are machine perfect as a matter of fact – the only natural giveaway are the slightly beveled edges. These bees are solitary in nature, but they tend to group together into loose knit “colonies” because of their shared individual preferences for a good piece of wood. This means that you’ll see several holes in a relatively small area on a select piece of wooden real estate. In the view of a Carpenter,  a perfect piece of home wood is an un-painted section of an eave, deck, or picnic table.

Deep inside, the central tunnels branch off  into several side galleries. Each gallery is divided into six or eight apartments (see below and here) which become the brood chambers. Once a female has constructed a gallery section, she begins to provision it with baby food. Balls of pollen are packed together witha dose of nectar glue to form loaves of “bee bread.”  A single egg is laid on the pollen ball and the chamber is then sealed off with a wall of chewed wood. The adjacent chambers are likewise provisioned and sealed with particle board dividers until the entire gallery is full. When the larvae hatch, they will feast on the nutritious mix, pupate and then chew their way to freedom.

The whole cycle of Carpenter Bee life takes one year. The newly emerged bees come out in August and they eventually return to spend the winter back in their old nursery galleries. Emerging the next spring, they feed and mate and come to the end of their B-line in July. Up until now, I’ve only mentioned the females in this scenario but it’s time to give the males their due. It is thier job to mate with the females and they spend an inordinate amount of time patrolling the gallery sites looking for some Bee-hind, if you know what I mean.

Patrolling male Carpenter Bees can be intimidating. Because they go after anything that moves, they frequently buzz human heads and send their owners packing – regardless of their stingless nature. The boys are striving to intercept the females and will investigate anything that remotely resembles one. Rival males are also kept at bay in the process. Because of the fact that they bore into wood and annoy passerbys, these big brash bees are considered pests by some, but their pollinating services more than make up for these percieved faults. 

As a final treat, I bring you a short video clip of a male Carpenter wooing a female.  Take a look here and you’ll see a spirited male hovering about a rather disinterested female. While she preens non-chalantly, he performs some dazzling wing moves in an attempt to get her feminine attentions. Although she walks off and appears to give our suitor the cold shoulder, the two did hook up immediately after this sequence.

There is one small detail that I’d like to point out in this video, however.  After the female takes off, the befuddled male is momentarily distracted by a nearby bird dropping and he approaches it as if it were the female! This is probably the closest this type of bee becomes to being a Bumble(ing) Bee. In his defense, he quickly realized his mistake and then took off after his true love, but I can only imagine the conversation that followed when she asked him what took him so long to catch up. “Oh, I temporarily mistook you for a piece of bird crap, honey,” would be the likely reply. Given that response, it is a small miracle that she didn’t sting him to death.

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