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Lessons from Mr. Bee: What I Learned from Observing an Eastern Carpenter Bee

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

August 1, 2020, was a hot day. While sitting in the Native Plant Pickup Yard™, a giant carpenter bee crawled onto my foot. I noticed it had only three good wings. The fourth wing was missing. So, I walked over to a woodpile and shooed it into there knowing it would not make it very long in its condition. I sat back in my chair and an hour later it was back on my foot. Again, I put it back in the woodpile. Thirty minutes later, it was back on my foot. I put it back in the woodpile for the night. The next day it found me again. I got the hint, it needed me.

Notice the large white patch on its face in the first photo.

In the second photo, you can see he is missing a wing.

I figured this bee had not had any nourishment in some time. I used a stick to put it on Pycnanthemum tenufolium (Threadleaf Mountain Mint). The little critter went to town! While it enjoyed the mountain mint, I did some research regarding carpenter bees. I found out the big bee was a male because of the large white patch on his face and that the males do not sting. Curiously, I put him on a stick and then allowed him to crawl on my hand. He started using his tongue, called a proboscis, on my cuticles and it felt quite bizarre.

Well, now I had become this bee's lifeline and I knew it was just a matter of time before he was no longer going to be with me. Every day I would bring him outside and put him on the mountain mint where he would spend his day. He never ventured any further! On August 5, tropical storm Isaias was about to approach and I couldn't leave him outside. I set him up in a big container with a shallow dish of water and fresh flower cuts. Every night I would bring him inside and he would sleep in his flowers.

Mr. Bee

I knew the day would come and he died exactly 2 weeks from the day he found me. I cried for hours. I buried him under a Rubus odorata (flowering raspberry). If he was left to nature he never would have made it as long. Carpenter bees can live up to three years.

I learned a lot from Mr. Bee. He also taught my fiancé to have a little more respect for carpenter bees. Of course, he still despises them for drilling in the eaves of the house (the females are responsible for this) but I keep telling him a nice coat of paint will deter them! This year we will have some untreated wood set aside to deter them from drilling in the eaves of the house.

Carpenter bees will sip nectar and collect pollen from blueberries, mountain mint, milkweed, and many other native flowers. They are also known to nectar rob deep flowers like beardtongue. They cannot fit inside many flowers, as they are too big, so they use their mouthparts to cut a slit at the base of the flower and steal away with the nectar without having pollinated the flower. Being generalists, they also forage in our vegetable and flower gardens. Just like bumblebees, they perform 'buzz pollination' on peppers, eggplants, tomatoes and other vegetables. This is when they use their jaws and strong thoracic muscles to hold the base of the flower and beat their wings to sonicate the dry pollen grains out of the flower's anther.

Carpenter bee (not Mr. Bee) nectar robbing Penstemon d. 'Husker's Red' (Beardtongue)

Think about Mr. Bee the next time you get angry with them for drilling into your 'poorly maintained eaves'.

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