Carpenter bees are fairly large, 12.5 to 25 mm in length. They resemble bumblebees, except that their abdomen is smooth and mostly hairless.
The most visible physical difference (at a glance) between this species and a bumblebee is the abdomen. Eastern carpenter bees have a shiny black abdomen, with the only yellow hair present being at the base next to the thorax, while bumblebees have a very fuzzy abdomen.
Though often confused with the bumblebee, carpenter bees can be readily identified by their black abdomen—a slick, shiny, black abdomen. The thorax of the carpenter bee (directly behind the head) is usually covered with yellow, orange, or white hairs.
Carpenter bees rank among the largest of bees native to the United States. There are numerous species of carpenter bees (Xylocopa) that inhabit a diverse range of habitats from tropical to subtropical to temperate. In the United States, carpenter bees occur across the southern United States from Florida to Arizona and in the eastern United States, north to New York.
As pollinators, carpenter bees are generalists in our gardens and landscapes—they may be found foraging on a number of different species. Like their close cousins, the bumblebees, carpenter bees are early morning foragers. Carpenter bees are excellent pollinators of eggplant, tomato and other vegetables and many types of flowers.
Carpenter bees have very powerful thoracic muscles—when carpenter bees land on flower blossoms they become living tuning forks and can “sonicate” the dry pollen grains out of the flowers’ anthers. This type of pollen collection in known as “buzz pollination.” Carpenter bees are reported as being excellent pollinators of many vegetables and flowers. Carpenter bees are even mass produced in the Philippines for farm-pollination services.
On occasion, carpenter bees can be quite ingenious in their foraging for nectar. Because of their large size, carpenter bees are not capable of entering long, tubular flowers such as those produced by salvias and penstemons. Instead they become nectar robbers. Using their mouthparts they cut a slit at the base of corolla and steal away with the nectar without having pollinated the flower. We have also noticed this to the case for flowers of yellowbells (Tecoma stans, also known as yellow elder and trumpetbush).
Unlike the bumble bee that typically builds colonies in the ground, the carpenter bee is a solitary bee preferring to live and nest alone in wood tunnels. Carpenter bees do not consume wood, but their tunneling can be destructive to softwoods and hardwoods alike. Under normal conditions they are not very destructive; however, if several generations of carpenter bees have been tunneling in the same area, extensive damage is possible.
Weathered woods are a common target of carpenter bees; thus, they are often found tunneling into fence posts, lawn furniture, the roof and eaves of buildings, decks, window shutters, wood shingles and siding.
To deter this behavior, keep exposed wood surfaces, including nail holes and saw cuts, coated with polyurethane or oil-base paint. Consider using non-wood building materials, such as vinyl siding, to avoid possible damage by carpenter bees. If tunnel entrances are found in buildings, seal tunnel entrances immediately with caulk.
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