The Dilemma of Carpenter Bees!

Life is full of dilemmas, and it seems a gardener has plenty of them. Whether to live trap and relocate those bunnies that are decimating your crops, or put up a fence, or just plant more than they can possibly eat…whether to use that awful “rose food” that contains a systemic poison, or watch the Japanese beetles devour the petals faster than they can open. These are complex problems with conflicting solutions for any gardener, or citizen of the natural world.

Right now, my dilemma is Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa viginica.) That colorful, fuzzy bee pollinating a snapdragon in the photo above is so beneficial. It looks very much like a bumblebee, and is often mistaken for one. Size-wise they are similar, about 1″ in length, and 3/4″ wide. They are covered in bristly hairs, and have the striking yellow and black stripes. The most visual difference is that the Carpenter bee has a bare abdomen. You’ll just have to take my word on that one. Try as hard as I might, I could not get him to roll over for a photo of his bare abdomen.

The Carpenter bee to me is the “Sumo wrestler” of the bee world; big, impressive and more interested in posturing that actual fighting. In fact, I don’t think they even have a stinger. At least, in my 74 years of observation, I’ve yet to be stung by one, or seen anyone else get stung, or even found a stinger on his body. A quick check on a university website states that the females do have a stinger, but very rarely sting unless handled and the males do not even have a stinger. A Carpenter bee’s protective device is an amazing show of courage and aggression, often flying right at face level and hovering there with lots of scary buzzing. For the uninformed, this can be very intimidating. In fact, even though I believe the bee cannot sting, sometimes I find myself flinching. Usually though, I just tell him I appreciate all his hard work in my garden and explain that I too, am harmless. After all, he’s the one who pollinates all the fava bean flowers and the one whose burly shoulders can push open the jaws of the snapdragons. I love seeing them at work in the garden. However…..

Here’s the other “work” they do, and why they are named “Carpenter” bees. The bees drill holes the width of their body into wood. Once they are completely inside, they turn and drill a horizontal tunnel, usually 3-5″ in length. It is in that tunnel that they lay eggs, which become larvae and hatch later on. If you look carefully at the photo above, you can see that they actually make chambers about 1″ in length.

Drilling those chambers thus weakens any wooden structure, and is certainly destructive but I could live with that. The next actor appears and completes the next step in Mother Nature’s complex cycle. You see, I did not excavate that tunnel for your viewing, the Red-headed woodpecker did. Various woodpeckers seek out those apparently delicious and nutritious eggs and larvae, but here the most common are the Red-headed. They peck open the entire chamber, and often add a few decorative touches of their own, enlarging the spaces, removing the finish. Obviously, this just adds to the destruction of the wooden structure. The photo above is in the 2 x 4 rafter of the Lady Cottage “porch.”

Once the tunnel in the overhead rafter was destroyed, the dedicated bees diligently began work on a new home. This time in the Lady Cottage siding, just behind the bench that sits under the window. It made it a little more difficult to sit while transplanting seedlings, or stemming snow peas with the bees doing the protective patrolling but we were able to co-exist. However, this morning shows that the woodpeckers have also found this new tunnel and decimated it. This time, the wood was so thin that there are now holes all the way through the board, so I can actually see inside the Cottage.

This brings on the third character in this tragic comedy, the wren. There’s nothing a wren likes more than a small hole that can be made just large enough to hop through. It always amazes me how quickly a wren can make a nest. I love wrens, with their sweet song and energetic little bodies. They always make me think of a 3 yr. old child, hopping about, skipping, begging for attention, and almost non-stop chatter. However, I do not like them nesting in my Lady Cottage, leaving a mess and little bird-droppings on every surface.

For years, Carpenter bees have excavated the boards of our gazebo. We’ve had to replace several of the boards that hold the guttering repeatedly over time. More recently, the bees have seemed to prefer the Lady Cottage.

Last year, they did lots of damage high up on the north side of the Lady Cottage, so in the fall I climbed a 12′ ladder and put Wood Putty in all the holes. At least it kept the wrens out this spring. However, sadly, it appears the woodpeckers will also peck through Wood Putty because this is what it looks like now. I’ve been told that certain paints and paint colors tend to repel them, and certainly covering the Cottage with aluminum or vinyl siding would deter them as well, but I like the rustic look of stained wood. I’ve tried putting out boards to their liking, even hanging them on the Cottage, but the bees seem to prefer drilling in the structure itself.

This morning, again on the north side, but in an area about eye level (above the Primrose Path) I spotted a newly drilled hole (on the left of the photo) near a tunnel I had repaired with Wood Putty earlier this spring. Obviously the woodpeckers have been back again, too. Wouldn’t you think the bees would learn, and not re-drill so close to a tunnel that has been destroyed?

So, that’s the dilemma. Right now, I’m leaning toward repair and painting the structure, but I’m not sure I can live with a bright yellow or white that are apparently deterrents. Any suggestions on how I can keep both the Carpenter bees and the Lady Cottage?

About carolee

A former professional herb and lavender grower, now just growing for joy in my new potager. When I'm not in the garden, I'm in the kitchen, writing, or traveling to great gardens.
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14 Responses to The Dilemma of Carpenter Bees!

  1. Sounds like a garden version of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie!”
    I’d shudder at the bright white or yellow paint, as well. Is there any such thing as a siding with wood grain look?

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  2. I have no suggestions but just wanted to give you major kudos for not getting rid of the bees! We have a tribe of carpenter bees that burrow into our chicken coop and our garden fence which is annoying, but they pollinate so much of our garden that we are able to let them have a free pass.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amy Rich says:

    I don’t envy your dilemma! I have a few of the bees, but not the woodpeckers to make things worse. They do seem to bore into my white trim and bright yellow fence, though. Maybe they didn’t when the paint was freshest, but from my experience, repelling carpenter bees with paint color may not be enough to justify painting something a color you don’t like.

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  4. Going Batty in Wales says:

    I love the idea of you trying to persuade a bee to roll on its back so you can take a photo of its bare tummy! I haven’t come across carpenter bees but they must be very annoying with all that boring!

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  5. Rita Rosol Shields says:

    Hi carolee… I think a creamy beige color would work just as well and be very pretty.

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    • carolee says:

      I was actually standing on the deck this morning thinking that same thing…it might look well with the pole barn in the background…and make the green trim (which they don’t seem to bore) stand out more.

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  6. Judith says:

    A fascinating account of your dilemma. Sorry I can’t offer any helpful suggestions. Our local bees are generally smaller and not pursued by woodpeckers!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Kit Miracle says:

    I hear your pain. I posted about this very problem with the bees excavating my cedar benches and the woodpeckers that went after them. Very annoying, not to mention the damage. And, yes, they can sting if provoked. It’s always something.

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  8. Lauren says:

    Could you spray an oil or something that doesn’t taste good (vinegar?) on the wood? Or pickle the wood with a lyme solution? Maybe those would work while still keeping the rustic look?

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