Eastern Carpenter Bees

Eastern male carpenter bee harvesting nectar from purple flower - Xylocopa virginica
Eastern Carpenter Bee Classification
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Apidae
Genus: Xylocopa
Species: Xylocopa virginica

Eastern carpenter bees are a species of bee in the genus Xylocopa. Xylocopa is Latin for “woodcutter,” a reference to how eastern carpenter bees nest by digging into wood and creating small piles of shavings below their nests. [1]

The eastern carpenter bee is scientifically known as Xylocopa virginica, possibly due to its widespread distribution in East and West Virginia.

Xylocopa is a genus in the family Apidae, which is in the order Hymenoptera. All Hymenoptera are insects.

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    Where Can Eastern Carpenter Bees Be Found?

    The eastern carpenter bee is usually found in temperate climates of North America, such as Nebraska, Ontario, and Maine. [2] 

    The eastern carpenter bee is not found on the West Coast of the United States or in any other country except Canada.

    Carpenter bees are temperate bees, and therefore they are not found in tropical climates.

    How to Identify an Eastern Carpenter Bee

    eastern carpenter bee identification chart

    An eastern carpenter bee can be identified by its shiny black abdomen. By observing this characteristic, you will be able to distinguish the eastern carpenter bee from similar-looking bumblebees. 

    The male and female eastern carpenter bees are similar in size, but the male has a longer body and the female has a wider head. The male eastern carpenter bees also possess a white mark on their chin and mandibles, making them easy to distinguish from their female counterparts.

    In terms of appearance, older female eastern carpenter bees are difficult to distinguish from younger females. 

    However, If you observe a female eastern carpenter bee foraging or flying around, it is probably an older female bee as these are the ones responsible for such activities.

    Where Do Eastern Carpenter Bees Live?

    Despite living in social groups, with two to five females sharing a nest, eastern Carpenter Bees can exhibit the characteristics of solitary bees as well.

    It should be noted that eastern Carpenter Bees differ from solitary bees in that they are not entirely solitary. Instead, eastern carpenter bees have a caste system and a division of labor within each colony.

    Eastern carpenter bees nest in wood, bamboo, and agave, preferring milled pine and cedar best. In order to create the nest, eastern carpenter bees carve wood shavings from a piece of lumber and use them to construct brood cells.

    If you discover some unexplained wood shavings, you may have encountered an eastern carpenter bee constructing its nest or brood chamber.

    The nests usually look like small piles of wood shavings on the surface of a wooden beam, where the female eastern carpenter bees have carved out the wood and left it to sit. If the nest is dug into a vertical surface, wood shavings may appear on the ground below.

    Carpenter bees frequently reuse old nests, finding old nests left behind by previous generations and nesting in them the following year.[3]

    Eastern Carpenter Bees vs Bumblebees

    Eastern Carpenter Bee Bumblebee
    Appearance Distinctive shiny black abdomen, similar to bumblebee otherwise. Medium-sized bee with yellow or orange stripes on a furry black abdomen.[4]
    Colony size Social nests typically contain two to five female bees, but these bees also sometimes nest alone as solitary bees. Most colonies contain as few as 50 individuals and as many as 500.
    Nesting behavior Nests are dug into soft woods such as pine and cedar, but also bamboo and agave stalks. Brood cells are divided by wood shavings. Many species nest underground, reusing left behind rodent holes or dead trees. Brood cells are made of wax.
    Reproduction Male and female carpenter bees mate, with only the oldest females being able to reproduce. Male drone bees fertilize a single queen, who is responsible for all egg-laying within a colony.
    Honey production These bees do not produce honey. Bumblebees can and do produce honey to feed their young, although not in the quantity or quality that make it worth harvesting for humans.
    Stinging Females can and will sting repeatedly if threatened, but are not very aggressive. Males do not have stingers. Females are fairly aggressive and will sting to protect themselves and their honey from intruders. Males do not have stingers.
    Life cycle One generation per year, with adults overwintering and waiting to mate in the spring. Life cycle begins in February, reproduction begins in July, and most of the bees die off by November.
    Distribution Found only in North America East of the Rocky Mountains, including Nebraska, Canada, and southern Ontario. Found in temperate climates and even very cold climates in the Arctic. They survive in such areas by shivering to raise their body temperature.
    Damage These bees can damage man-made structures by burrowing into wood and weakening it. Bumblebees typically do not cause damage to human structures.
    Diet These bees eat nectar and pollen, but do not make honey to feed on. Bumblebees feed not only on nectar and pollen, but also a rudimentary form of honey produced when they mix their collected nectar with enzymes to create a sweet, thick liquid to feed their larvae.

    What Do Eastern Carpenter Bees Eat?

    Eastern carpenter bee taking nectar from white and purple flower

    Eastern carpenter bees eat primarily nectar and pollen.

    To collect nectar from plants, eastern carpenter bees use a technique called nectar robbing. This technique involves eastern carpenter bees entering the corollas of flowers in order to access nectar without collecting pollen on their fuzzy bodies. As a result, fewer plants are pollinated.

    Unlike other bee species, eastern carpenter bees rarely feed their newly born bees nectar. In general, eastern carpenter bees will leave them to collect nectar on their own.

    Do Eastern Carpenter Bees Pollinate?

    The eastern carpenter bee does pollinate and is an important pollinator of blueberry crops and decorative flowers.

    In addition to having hair covering their entire body, eastern carpenter bees are active for long periods of time, which makes them effective pollinators.

    Pollination is a phenomenon that occurs when insects such as eastern carpenter bees fly between plants, transferring pollen between them. When an insect lands on a plant to collect pollen or nectar, pollen will often stick to their legs, thoraces, and even abdomens.

    eastern carpenter bee pollinating flower
    It may surprise you to learn that although eastern carpenter bees are very effective pollinators, this process is unintentional. Pollination is a byproduct of the foraging activities of these bees.

    Once the pollen has attached to the eastern carpenter bee, it flies to another flower, where some pollen grains may fall off of their body. This transfer of pollen fertilizes the plant, allowing it to reproduce and make seeds to create further generations. 

    When compared to honey bees, eastern carpenter bees are not such efficient pollinators because of their relatively small colony size and the fact that they employ the nectar robbing technique, which bypasses pollination.

    Do Eastern Carpenter Bees Make Honey?

    Eastern carpenter bees do not make honey, instead feeding their young on pollen and nectar. Larvae are fed on small balls of pollen stored in brood cells along with eggs while growing young eastern carpenter bees are fed with nectar. 

    The adult eastern carpenter bees feed solely on nectar from a variety of flowers, as opposed to honey bees, who often produce honey with their collected nectar and feed on that. 

    Do Eastern Carpenter Bees Sting?

    eastern carpenter bee holding onto purple flower

    A female Eastern carpenter bee is capable of stinging, but it is not very common. Unlike female Eastern carpenter bees, males do not have stingers and are therefore unable to sting.

    In contrast to honey bees, female eastern carpenter bees have unbarbed stingers and are capable of stinging multiple times if threatened.

    Do Eastern Carpenter Bees Cause Damage?

    As they nest in wooden structures, eastern carpenter bees have the potential to cause damage to houses and other man-made structures.

    Due to the fact that eastern carpenter bees tunnel in wood, they can adversely affect the strength and stability of wood structures.

    Overall, eastern carpenter bees are very important pollinators, which means that their habitats should be protected and conserved.

    The easiest way to discourage eastern Carpenter Bees from nesting in a particular area is to paint any wood surfaces white. 

    In addition, you can provide eastern carpenter bees with an alternative place to nest, such as wood fencing or wood planks.

    Reproduction & Lifecycle of Eastern Carpenter Bees

    There is only one generation of eastern carpenter bees per year, as they mate only once per year. Male and female eastern carpenter bees mate in midair during a dance the bees perform, with many males and only a few females participating.

    In July, female eastern carpenter bees begin laying eggs, and by August they have begun developing into larvae. All eastern carpenter bee larvae have pupated and become adults by mid-September.

    In their early stages of development, eastern carpenter bees have white wings and a soft exoskeleton. As eastern carpenter bees age, their wings begin to turn brown, then black, with blue undertones.

    It is common for eastern carpenter bees to stay in their nests for at least two weeks after hatching. This is even though they are able to fly within three days of hatching.

    It is possible for female Eastern carpenter bees to overwinter twice or even three times, however, most die after one season, leaving their young to carry out mating and foraging activities.

    Eastern carpenter bees will not attack unless threatened; therefore, it is important to leave them alone so as not to disrupt their life cycle.

    Eastern carpenter bees fall somewhat between social and solitary. 

    Despite the absence of a queen bee, eastern carpenter bees possess a caste system among females in which the oldest females are responsible for reproduction. The youngest female eastern carpenter bees guard the nest and wait for winter.

    It tends to be the older reproductive females who have overwintered more than once, while the younger eastern carpenter bees who guard the nests are brand new or have only overwintered once.

    All of the foraging work of the colony is performed by the older female eastern carpenter bees. This includes feeding both the larvae and the young adult female eastern carpenter bees waiting in the nest to overwinter.


    [1] PennState [2] Wikipedia [3] mdc.mo.gov [4] Wikipedia

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