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The Gentle Giant of the Bee World, The Carpenter Bee

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Tuesday 17 November 2009

The Gentle Giant of the Bee World, The Carpenter Bee

So I have a new love, he is big, black and hairy. Yes, today I had a real  “Ahhh” moment with a Carpenter Bee. On a beautiful sunny morning at Leu the Carpenter Bees were busy,very busy, all over this red flower (which I think is Egyptian Star Cluster, Pentas lanceolata).
The flowers are slight, the bees are heavy, so seeing one struggling to keep its feet, holding out a steadying finger seemed only natural. I thought it would fly away at such an intrusion but this lovely bee was happy to clamber aboard this firmer platform and continue collecting nectar, 4 feet resting on me and 2 on the flower. They are so busy nectar gathering that they scarcely notice you.  I should also add that they do not sting.

You see the problem, big bee, small flower.


and three more of these big chaps, trundling across the flower heads.

My bee photos are more luck than anything else. I take a lot, then it’s rather like those “find the hidden animals in the tree” outline drawings in kids puzzle books.. sometimes there is a bee in them and sometimes there is nothing.

This gorgeous handsome bee is Xylocopa virginica, the Common Eastern Carpenter Bee. It’s the biggest bee in the USA and can be up to a sizeable one inch long.
This one is the all black female taken again at Leu but last week.

carpenter female

Professor Stephen Buchmann writes about bees. Chris bought me his “Letters from the Hive” and I have found it hard to drag myself away. Here is a snippet from his very nice article about Carpenter Bees, for the US Forestry Commission’s “Pollinator of the Month” series here.

 “These gentle giants get their name from their life history habits of excavating precisely rounded galleries inside wood. Using their broad, strong mandibles (jaws), they chew into dead but non-decayed limbs or trunks of standing dead trees. Some species, like the eastern Xylocopa virginica, occasionally take up residence in fence posts or structural timbers, especially redwood, and become a minor nuisance. Inside their rounded branched galleries, they form pollen/nectar loaves upon which they lay their giant eggs (up to 15 mm long). The female forms partitions between each egg cell by mixing sawdust and her saliva together. These partition walls are very similar to particle board!”


Diagram from”animals how stuff works . here

and a photo of their extraordinarily accomplished woodwork

abeille-apidae-xylocopinae-carpenter bee busyPhoto Stephen Buchmann

Also  accompanying the article is Prof Buchmann’s wonderful photo, demonstrating the huge difference in sizes between the bee species


The smallest and the largest: a Perdita minima on a female carpenter bee's head. Photo by Stephen Buchmann.

Anna, from Anna’s Bee World, who also very kindly helped me identify my Blue Wasp has this photo on her blog and explains how it was achieved.

This photo was taken by one of my graduate advisors, Stephen Buchmann, who is a renowned bee expert. He has this amazing amazing microscope, and an artful eye. These two bees are real, but obviously dead. He took a Carpenter bee, which are known as some of the largest bees (gentle giants) and he took the smallest bee in the world (Perdita minima) and glued the small bee onto the antennae of the carpenter bee. He thought it would bee (sorry, had to throw that in) cool to show people the size difference between the largest bee and smallest bee. It’s the photo you would see in the bee version of the Guinness World Records.There is a scale bar at the bottom of the photo, but I am not sure what the scale is (1mm?). I couldn’t find that. I assume it is 1mm since Perdita minima usually measures about 2mm in size  (0.078 inches).

See Anna’s Bee World here.

Two millimeters for the tiny Perdita minima!!!. I will not be attempting to paint that one.

Its rather a shame to see how many sites are dedicated to the eradication of this “nuisance” bee. It seems they don’t actually do too much harm and are so very beautiful and although quite territorial they are not really aggressive (the male bees cannot sting). I did read that if you want to “move” a Carpenter Bee, you throw a small pebble just past him. He will think it is another bee and go chasing after it. He may not be the sharpest bee in the box then, but his looks are enough to fall in love with.

There are certainly quite a few round here and, having a subversive streak myself, I rather like the idea of them infiltrating the neat timber porches and verandahs of Baldwin Park and setting up some little families there.  Their chewing can apparently be heard several feet away. :)


A preliminary sketch: What distinguishes them from Bumble Bees is their glossy hairless abdomen .. and their size!

 3 carpenters sm jpg

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Blogger Helen said...

I'm a fan of the carpenter bee, and have a bee condo in our garden shed. Thanks for all the new info and links.

17 November 2009 at 19:35  
Blogger sharp green pencil said...

oh that's very nice Helen. Before I knew they didn't sting I was quite wary of them but they are so gentle and funny to watch. I am not sure when or if they stop flying here in Florida. The honey bees don't have much of a break poor things...they just have to keep on going. Not like the UK at all.

17 November 2009 at 21:16  
Anonymous villager said...

I'll confess the carpenter bee is not my favorite bee, but I love your work here. Perhaps it will soften my general dislike of all the small holes in my wooden tables and benches outside. Great drawings and a beautiful blog!

17 November 2009 at 22:40  
Blogger John said...

I can hardly wait to tell my brother that they don't sting! This past summer he'd nearly jump off the ladder while making repairs when one would come flying out the side of his house. Of course he never got stung but the size of them frightened him well enough.

17 November 2009 at 22:57  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love bees. But, I don't at ll know my bees. Is this carpenter bee what I would call a big bumble bee? They are quite gentle. Gloria

18 November 2009 at 00:11  
Blogger Randy Emmitt said...

Enjoyed this article a learned a few things, thanks!
We have too many Carpenter bees where we live. We added on to the house here and you could nail on a cedar trim board and by the time the next board was cut and ready for nailing a Carpenter bee would be trying to drill into the last board nailed in.

18 November 2009 at 03:58  
Blogger sharp green pencil said...

Oh, now I do feel badly for all your sufferers of the drilling and chewing Carpenter Bees.

Randy and Villager: I have a wonderful picture of your bad local bees queuing up to drill and fill your homes.. sorry.. it must be very annoying!
Gloria: these are in the Apis family but not true bumble bees. these are bigger! you can tell them apart easily as these have shiny hairless abdomens. You are right though Bumble Bees are nice and gentle too. These insects are all too busy trying to get on with their work to bother with a quiet human.. they just dont like a lot of flapping and screeching.. can you blame them :)
John: just tell your brother to tough it out and throw pebbles! I have to say though, that a natural and wise response when being buzzed by a large insect is to flee.. I still feel the same!

18 November 2009 at 20:44  
Blogger José M. M. Santos said...

The things I'm learning about this great insects!

19 November 2009 at 09:55  
Blogger sharp green pencil said...

They are very nice bees Jose.. I am just finishing the Violet Carpenter bee that you probably see in Portugal. Should be posting it Friday.

20 November 2009 at 00:26  

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