Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Sligo Naturalist: Carpenter Bees

Standing in the park near the big wooden pirate ship, I watched as a little girl and her father were both running away from two large, noisy bees. As the girl screamed, the father tried to retain as much of his dignity as possible. “Let’s just play over here where the big old bees won’t bother us,” he said, brushing mulch off his shirt and hurriedly running away.

The dad seemed a tad embarrassed and so I pretended not to notice, although a part of me wanted to say something friendly. When it happened a second time with another parent and child, I couldn’t help myself.

“They’re just carpenter bees,” I called out from the bench with a smile. “They like the wood, they won’t sting you.”

The mom in question this time stopped and looked at me blankly.

“Really,” I continued on. “When my dad was a kid he even used to catch them and tie a piece of thread to one of their legs and walk them like a dog, or a kite,” I offered to ease her anxiety. “He liked to show off to the other kids that way. He never got stung, though.”

I was all caught up in my own story, imagining my dad as a young kid growing up many decades ago in North Carolina… when I realized suddenly that I had shared too much. Now this woman thought I was weird, and she still didn’t like the bees.

(This happens sometimes when you like insects. Facts you find fascinating really make you seem quite eccentric by many bug-hater standards. I’d like to say I’ve gotten used to it, but I still find myself in these situations quite a bit. The more I learn about insects, the more often this happens.)

A lot of people are afraid of all bees, and because carpenter bees are so big people assume they will form a terrifying swarm then sting the hell out of anyone who comes close.

But there really is not much need to fear a dundering carpenter bee. The females will sting, but only if they are actually picked up. The males can’t sting at all, and they are the ones that mostly fly at people’s faces in an aggressive manner on spring days. It is all a bluff, though, and what they really want is for you to stay away from the tunnels they have dug in the wood where the females can lay their eggs.

The big conflict arises when the bees take up residence in wooden playground sets, porches or decks. The females are simply going in and out of the tunnels, and the males try to protect them. The bees are so big and so noisy, it really alarms the kids who come to play.

The tunnels they excavate can turn solid wood flimsy if they bees aren’t removed or controlled. Unlike termites, they aren’t really eating the wood, simply digging it out. You can often tell you have an infestation because you’ll find a little puddle of saw dust below their chosen nest spot. Painting wood is the best way to deter their interest in your wooden walls and beams, but often treated wood cannot be effectively coated and will attract them anyway.

Carpenter bees are native to the US, but there seems to be some disagreement over their benefits to US gardeners. While many can be seen at my flowers all summer long, I’ve always been told that their pollination services were not so great. Because they are such a large size, they can’t access the nectar in many tubular flowers. Instead, they slit a hole in the side of the corolla and “rob” the flower without pollinating it. On the other hand, they have very strong thoracic muscles which they sometimes use near a flower, which “buzzes” the pollen out.

It might be the case that these particular bees have not been researched very much. It has only been in the last decade or so that so called “alternative” pollinators have merited much agricultural study and so it seems kind of unclear exactly how valuable these bees are to home growers. As honeybees suffer from mysterious deaths and economically devastating diseases and mites, all other bees have become more appreciated in general.

That said, a lot of the cooperative extension literature on the carpenter bees categorizes them as not particularly important for pollination. The US Forest Service website, on the other hand, classifies them as “excellent pollinators of eggplant, tomato and other vegetables and flowers.” Seems that in some ways the jury is still out on their overall pollination value, but that for some of the flatter flowers they can be beneficial.

I always try to avoid spraying pesticides in my yard, and do what I can to help the native pollinators. But I didn’t hesitate to control carpenter bees when they moved into our porch ceiling a few years ago. As with termites, I don’t mind the presence of the carpenter bees in nature or my garden and I understand the role they play in the ecosystem. I just don’t want to share my house with them. Too potentially expensive to repair the damage.

Even so, there’s something funny about carpenter bees to me, and I wouldn’t want them to entirely disappear from my garden. They aren’t exactly gentle giants, but their appearance is kind of humorous for some reason.

I understand why my dad would “walk” them when he was a kid. They are so large and odd that you can’t help but think of them as something other than insect-like, even when they are doing very typical insect things like buzzing around in the garden. I don’t think I’d ever try to walk one myself, but I wish I could’ve been there all those decades ago to watch when he did it. I would have had a good laugh.

This posting originally appeared in the May 2010 edition of the Voice newspapers of Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Kensington.

1 comment:

Dan Kulpinski said...

Great post, Alison! We've had carpenter bees in our back fence for years. I've intended to block them from coming back, by plugging their holes or painting the fence, but I haven't got around to it. I think termites got another part of the fence, so we may just have to replace everything and properly paint the new fence.

The bees haven't bothered us, really, although the fly over the grill to get to their holes, so there is a bit of ducking going on.

Our baby eggplant is doing great so far this year, though!