- Sue Anderson
- The Great Sandy Desert carpenter bee.
I never know what my wife and I will come home with when we go out on our seasonal look-see at the 150+ golden eagle breeding sites we're responsible for watching over.
Sometimes we'll come home with only one American badger sighting for the day, or none, which is very sad. Other times we'll witness a herd of 100 or so Rocky Mountain elk come thundering across the road in front of us out on the Great Sandy Desert, and that perks us up.
Burrowing owls are always a delight to meet up with, especially when the one on guard is perched on a Bureau of Land Management road sign. A big thrill is when the whole family—mom, dad and six owlets—are standing in front of their burrow, scolding us, with the kids looking at us with their heads upside down.
Black-tailed jackrabbits and desert cottontails are always fun to watch as they do their best to convince us they're merely a figment of our imaginations. But then a Ferruginous hawk comes swooping down and ruins that plan.
My wife, Sue, is into butterflies, so when we come upon a milkweed patch we didn't know about, and it's breeding Monarchs that we didn't know of, eagles are almost forgotten as we whip out the GPS and spend a good hour crawling around looking for, counting and photographing caterpillars and adults.
But last summer, we came home with a beautiful sighting of a new-for-us insect. I first called it a bumblebee; that is, prior to contacting Rich Hatfield of the Xerces Society. He's the bumblebee expert at the society's headquarters in Portland, and I often send him photos for I.D. Rich kindly informed me that Sue's photo was of a carpenter bee, not a bumblebee.
I've come to realize how vital native bees are to the health and welfare of all our natural ecosystems and human welfare. So much so, that I've given up my lifelong love affair with the European honeybee. My wonderful old great uncle, Moulton Alexander Rockefeller, introduced me to them when I was a teenager and I collected a swarm for him from the family farm's orchard.
- Max pexel
No one loves on-demand honey more than I do, but I've come to realize that my sweet European bees were/are competing unfavorably with the native pollinators—especially bumblebees—so I've given up beekeeping in favor of protecting native bees.
Which takes us to the title of this story, "Hjelp humlene med bolplass." That's Norwegian for, "Help the hops with pitcher." It was contained in the response I received from Hatfield that set me straight on who-is-whom. After over 90 years of wandering around on this great old Planet Earth you'd think I'd know my bees. Rich set me straight.
Carpenter bees are in the genus Xylocopa, and I was relieved to learn I'm not the first one to confuse them with bumblebees. There are some 500 species of carpenter bees in 31 subgenera found throughout the world, and most of them look very much alike. The common name, "carpenter bee," derives from their nesting behavior, as they burrow into hard plant material such as deadwood or bamboo. My hunch is the Great Sandy Desert variety nests in dead sagebrush and juniper.
However, carpenter bees—wonderful pollinators—do not enjoy the complex social structure of European honeybees and other hive bees. Instead, they live as you and I do, in pairs. The female carpenter bee bores a nesting hole in the old wooden substrate and guards her young while the male patrols the area.
The males are fiercely territorial, dive-bombing and attempting to drive away anyone or anything that approaches the nest. However, the males are all buzz and no bite/sting. They may be able to scare the daylights out of you, but it's only the female carpenter bees that are capable of following up on it, stinging the intruder.
If you're as pig-headed as I am and want to get to know carpenter bees, you will get stung. I guarantee it! I've had the honor.
Unlike the honeybee female, which has a barbed stinger and can only sting once, the carpenter bee has a smooth stinger and can, like a wasp, give it to you again and again. The typical sharp pain follows for a few minutes, a dull ache after that, and the site can/will remain sensitive to the touch and also itch for a few days.
Now, with all that said, carpenter bee stings are not dangerous for most people, and applying cold packs on and off to the site—with one or two layers of cloth in between—will take away most of the fire. BUT if you're allergic to the venom of bees, seek medical treatment immediately, and/or use the venom kit you should have with you at all times!
If you'd like to have these vital pollinators as guests in your backyard to help keep your garden healthy, send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll send you plans for a Norwegian artificial carpenter bee nest. If you're from the old country and still speak the lingo: IHvis du er fra det gamle landet, sender jeg det til deg på ditt eget språk.