BEES ARE HERE AT LAST
April 4, 2010
coldest and most prolonged southern winter in recent memory, I enjoy getting
questions about courting animals and flowering plants. I have answered
the following question many times about a frequent visitor to decks and
other wooden structures at this time of year.
Q. We start
sitting on our unpainted back porch about this time each year, and we
notice that sawdust is falling from the underside of the roof. Do we have
termites or are the black bumblebees that fly around responsible? We think
they burrow into the eaves and wood frame. One will occasionally threaten
me by hovering in front of my face. Should we get rid of them, or are
they important pollinators?
A. The short
answers are don't get rid of them, and yes they serve a significant role
as pollinators. Instead of eradicating the wood-burrowing, shiny black
bees, watch them, listen to them, and otherwise enjoy them. They are carpenter
bees, which are about an inch long. They do not have the yellow, fuzzy
appearance of bumblebees, but carpenter bees sometimes sport a two-tone
look when carrying a supply of yellow pollen.
cycle of carpenter bees is relatively straightforward. From early to late
spring throughout much of the country, they emerge from holes in natural
or man-made wood and seek mates. Males sometimes appear aggressive by
buzzing loudly and flying in front of a person's face. But it's just an
act. Male carpenter bees are completely harmless. Like other bees and
wasps, only the females have stingers.
bees have a distinctive light-colored spot on the face that is presumably
a signal to other males during mating season to watch their manners and
back off. To enjoy a particularly impressive show, have someone (in my
case it was a grandson) wear a bright yellow shirt at the height of carpenter
bee mating season. Male bees buzzed right up to the front of the shirt,
apparently challenging what they thought was the biggest bee on the block.
You can bring the adventure to another level when one hovers in front
of you. Grab it and hold it in your hand. It will be mad when you let
it go but will not sting. Be sure you grab a male and not one of the females,
which have black faces with no yellow spot, but also have a stinger.
bees literally chew a tunnel into wood. The females prefer an already
created hole, but some additional excavation and reorganization may be
part of the process, much like someone moving into a new apartment might
paint the walls or rearrange the furniture. Having a visitor sit in the
chair beneath a carpenter bee reconstruction project with a steady stream
of sawdust trickling from the ceiling can be entertaining--at least to
the host. Female carpenter bees gather pollen, store it in the burrows,
and lay their eggs. The pollen serves as a source of nutrition for the
larvae. The adult bees die during the summer; the recently born ones spend
the winter in the previously completed holes.
response to carpenter bees is unreasonable, particularly those who recommend
using pesticides to eliminate them. No pesticide kills just the target
organism. Many other harmless creatures die as well. Besides, just how
harmful are carpenter bees? It's possible that enough burrowing over the
years could cause structural damage that might weaken a porch roof. But
since carpenter bees make it simple on themselves by using holes that
have already been constructed instead of making new ones, demolishing
an entire structure would take a lot of burrowing. Maybe our porch will
eventually fall down from the annual attack of the carpenter bees, but
we will have gotten considerable entertainment from these fascinating
creatures before that happens.
hazards of many animals are overstated. This is certainly true of carpenter
bees. If we eliminated them, we would lose not only an industrious pollinator
but also the opportunity to watch and hear a live-action nature show.
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