Thursday, October 09, 2008

Carpenter Bee

As I explore the nooks and crannies of the barn for reptiles a high-pitched hum resonates behind me. Slowly turning I find a male carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) hovering inches from my nose. Most people would react by swatting at it or running, but I stand my ground and observe because after all I’m just as curious as he. I know it’s a male due to the white facial spot normally not found on females. (“Face black-stay back”) I also know that his show of force is all bluster because I’m privy to certain information about him. The fact that he’s not “weaponized”. Only the female carpenter bee packs a stinger and usually doesn’t deploy it unless provoked. I’ve been stung by wasps and honeybees but never by a female carpenter bee so I can’t attest to how potent it is, nor do I care to find out.
Looking straight up I realize why I’ve become the center of its attention. About four foot above me in one of the barn’s well-weathered cypress beams is a ½” ragged hole and at my feet directly below this hole the ground is peppered with sawdust. Ignoring the inquisitive male I step up on a ladder to get a closer look at the entrance hole and see sawdust being kicked out meaning that the female, who bores the tunnel, is busy at work. After a few minutes she begins backing out to take a breather. She buzzes me and I give her ample room and respect. When a proper area is selected for her nesting chamber she will gnaw with her powerful jaws straight into the wood an inch or so and then make a 90 degree turn until a long horizontal tunnel following the wood grain is cut. These tunnels can reach lengths up to four inches, but can be extended upwards of 10 feet.

Once the tunnel is complete the female will collect pollen and mix it with nectar forming small balls known as “bee bread”. She will deposit this bee bread into the end of the tunnel, lay an egg on it, move backwards an inch or so and then seal it off with a partition (wall) made of saliva and chewed up wood. She will then repeat this process until the tunnel is filled with these sealed chambers, finishing off by sealing the tunnel's entrance with a final spit of masticated wood chips.
Fully grown the new adults then chew through the partitions emerging late summer. They then collect pollen to be stored in the tunnel from which they developed and return to them to hibernate during the winter. When spring arrives they emerge and mate. These bees only produce one generation each year so the previous year’s adults are history.

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