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What Time is it in Nature: Eastern Carpenter Bee

April 5, 2013

Prairie Ridge is abuzz with signs of spring!  The trees are growing fresh green leaves, the Purple Martins have returned to the gourds outside the classroom to nest, and there are hundreds of Eastern Carpenter Bees (Xylacopa virginica) building nests everywhere you look.

Eastern carpenter bee

Eastern Carpenter Bees are large black and yellow bees that are very common in the Eastern US.  They resemble large bumblebees, but you can easily tell the Carpenter Bees from their bumblebee relatives by looking at the abdomen: Carpenter Bees have a shiny black abdomen with only a small line of black hair near the thorax while the bumblebees have thick fur covering most of the abdomen.  You can also sex Eastern Carpenter Bees easily.  Males have a yellow or white patch on their faces while the females have entirely black heads.  As in all bees, the males are completely harmless and lack stingers as the stinger is a modified egg laying tube that only females bees possess.

Eastern Carpenter Bees, as their name suggest, nest in wood during the spring.  The females chew tunnels into dry wood and gather pollen and nectar to provision their nests.  They will lay 6-8 eggs, then seal off a section of the nest with wood shavings before starting a new section.  After the nest is completed, the eggs hatch inside and the larvae feed on the nectar and pollen provided by their mother.  They will grow and molt before eventually pupating and emerging from the nest as adults in late summer.  Eastern Carpenter Bees overwinter as adults, often seeking refuge in their nest tunnels, and get an early start on reproduction in the spring.

You will often see male Eastern Carpenter Bees hovering in place, chasing away any males that approach the area.  These bees are defending territories that the females may find attractive as a means of attracting mates.  When a female flies into the area, the male will pursue her in hopes of mating with her.  If successful, the female will lay eggs he has fathered in her nest.  Male Carpenter Bees that do not defend good nesting sites are sometimes found guarding flowers where females might forage for nectar and pollen for their nests, snatching up females that fly in to the flowers.

Eastern Carpenter Bees are sometimes considered pest species as they can bore into eaves on houses or other man-made wooden structures and cause damage.  However, Eastern Carpenter Bees are also incredibly important pollinators for a variety of plants.  Many people will put up with the minor damage the bees typically cause to keep them in their gardens to pollinate their plants.  We do the same at Prairie Ridge!

Here at Prairie Ridge, the flowers are blooming, the temperatures are still mild, and the garden is positively buzzing with Carpenter Bees.  It’s a great time to visit, so we hope to see you soon!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)

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