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Carpenter bees or “wood bees” are named so because they nest inside holes in dead
wood. If they are unable to find a nesting cavity, female carpenter bees will excavate a
long, round tunnel in which to rear their young. There are many small carpenter bee
species in the United States, which prefer to nest in pithy plant stems, but the large
eastern carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica is the only species typically noticed by homeowners, and is considered a pest due
to the damage caused by their nesting.
Female carpenter bee boring a gallery. She does not eat the wood, but provisions the
tunnel with food to rear her oﬀ spring.
Carpenter bees have shiny, hairless abdomens, unlike furry, striped bumble bees.
Male carpenter bees have a white patch on their faces. Males can be territorial, but
are unable to sting.
Carpenter bees are large (up to 1” long) and heavy-bodied, with a smooth, hairless
abdomen. They closely resemble bumble bees in size and color, but the abdomen of a
bumble bee is covered in dense hair, often with distinctive striped patterns. Male
carpenter bees have an obvious white patch in the middle of their faces, which is
lacking in females. Female bees also have thick tufts of hair on their hind legs,
used for transporting pollen back to their nests.
Young adult bees overwinter by hibernating in nesting galleries excavated from solid
wood, and emerging in the spring to mate. Long periods of extremely cold weather may
kill some overwintering bees. Survivors usually begin to emerge in mid-spring, and
seek floral nectar as food. During this time they are most active and noticeable by
Male carpenter bees emerge first, and may be seen hovering around nesting sites or
patches of flowering plants, awaiting the emergence of females. Males can be highly
territorial, and may hover or buzz erratically around humans. While the presence of
these large bees can be intimidating, the males cannot sting, and are harmless to
people. Female carpenter bees can deliver a painful sting, but rarely do so unless
provoked. After mating, male bees soon die, and fertilized females will begin to prepare
a nesting site. After nests have been established, female bees are mainly observed
loitering near their nest entrance or foraging in nearby flowers.
Carpenter bees do not eat the wood they excavate, but create these tunnels for rearing
young. The female bee provisions her tunnel nest with “bee bread” (a mixture of pollen
and nectar collected from flowers), which serves as food for the larvae when the eggs
hatch. She constructs a separate cell for each egg, which she closes off with a thin
wall of chewed wood pulp. There may be as many as six to eight cells in each tunnel.
The time required to complete development from egg to adult varies from 1 to 3 months.
Though newly matured adults usually emerge in late August, these bees will not mate
to start the cycle over again until the following spring.
Carpenter bees can be destructive pests, as they bore into seasoned woods, especially
soft woods such as cedar, redwood, pine, and fir. Damage may occur to soft or weathered
wood on porches, decks, sheds, barn beams, railings, overhead trim, porch furniture,
dead tree limbs, fence posts, wooden shingles, wood siding, windowsills, wood doors,
Female bees bore circular holes, about 1/2-inch wide, into the wood at right angles
to the surface for about an inch, then turning sharply, boring in the direction of
the wood grain for 4 to 6 inches or more. They may clean out and reuse old tunnels,
lengthen existing tunnels, or sometimes create a new branch inside an existing tunnel,
with a single entrance being used by multiple females. If a female is unable to locate
a suitable nesting tunnel, she will bore an entirely new gallery. Damage caused by
a single bee is slight, and mainly aesthetic. However, existing tunnels may be used
again and lengthened by other broods, and the bee population may increases over successive
seasons. The combined activity of numerous bees over a period of years can cause some
Painted wood is rarely attacked by carpenter bees, so keep all exposed wood surfaces
well painted. Wood stains will not prevent attacks. Wood pressure treated with a preservative
should be used if painting is not practical. Treatment involves applying an insecticide
into the tunnel entrance. Treat the opening after dark, when bees are less active
(female bees may reactive defensively if nesting activities are disturbed).
Apply an insecticidal dust or liquid spray into each hole, and to the wood surface
several inches around the entrance. Find specific control products Household and Structural Pest Control
Do not plug the holes immediately, but allow returning bees to pass freely so they
can contact the insecticide and spread it through the nest. Dust formulations work
best, and will not dry out or soak into wood. After a day or two, insert a small ball
of steel wool into the tunnel, then fill the hole with carpenter’s putty or a wooden
dowel to prevent further use. The steel wool will prevent any trapped bees from being
able to quickly chew their way out, and they will soon succumb to the insecticide.
If nests are numerous or out of convenient reach, limited control can be affected
by treating the wood around the entrance with a suitable residual insecticide labeled
for structural use (consult MP144 for current recommendations).
Individuals who use pesticides are responsible for ensuring that the intended use
complies with current regulations and conforms to the product label. Before purchasing
or using any pesticide, always read and carefully follow the label directions. For
assistance, contact your local County Cooperative Extension Office.
Traps will eliminate female bees searching for new nesting sites in the spring, helping
to reduce local populations and preventing additional damage.
Effective traps can be easily constructed from scrap wood, and few dimensions are
critical. The basic plan shown here uses a section of 4x4 post. Untreated, unpainted
wood will be the most attractive to the bees.
Drill 1/2” diameter holes in the sides, tilting upward at about a 45o angle, which
meet the larger hole drilled upward through the center of the block. Drill or punch
a large hole in the lid of a suitably sized jar, and attach it to the bottom of the
block as shown. Make holes on all four sides if the trap will be hung in the open,
or on three sides if the trap will mounted against a wall. The top of the block can
be cut at a slight angle to shed water if the trap will be placed in an area exposed
Hang traps wherever carpenter bees are observed looking for nesting sites in the spring.
Females will enter the small holes to investigate a potential new nesting site, and will then be attracted
down to the jar by the light. Their compound eyes will not see the clear jar, and
they are unlikely to find their way back out through the hole they entered. Simply
unscrew the jar to empty out dead bees.
Click diagram to view larger version.
Though considered a pest by many, carpenter bees are beneficial pollinators of many
native plants, including tomatoes, blueberries and melons. While adults feed on nectar
for energy, these bees do not produce honey, but they are highly efficient at pollen
collection and transport.
Homeowners may choose to provide them with acceptable alternative nesting sites away
from susceptible structures. Place a small bundle of softwood (4” diameter, 18-24”
long) in a sunny location adjacent to a garden, protected from rain. Bees can be encouraged
to take up residence in these logs by drilling 1/2” diameter holes in the end grain
of the wood. Keep this bundle dry and above the soil to prevent damage from termites
or fungal rot.
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