It’s got to be familiar to anyone on the East Coast: It’s a beautiful summer day, and you’re out in the park, or maybe just your back yard. You spot an inviting picnic table, and are about to have yourself a nice sit when terror suddenly sets in. You’re surrounded by bees. Bees the size of hummingbirds. They’ve obviously decided that the table is theirs, because they are hovering menacingly around it. One of them flies straight for you, stopping to hover a mere foot away and staring you in the face with beady bee-eyes that say, in a universal bee-to-human language, “you wanna make something of it?”
You’ve just had an encounter with the carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica), also known as the Wood-Boring Bee or Woodcutter, one of the more terrifying summertime residents of the Eastern United States. As much fear as they may inspire, carpenter bees are in fact quite harmless (at least to your physical well-being) and actually inquisitive and even flirtatious. That hover-and-stare we all interpret as confrontational is in fact the bee asking, “Hey! Wanna screw?”
Carpenter bees make their homes in untreated wood, boring out tunnels with their mandibles (they don’t actually eat the wood, but throw it away or use it as building material) and raising their young inside. The females are the ones who do the tunneling, along with the egg-laying, pollen-gathering and larvae-defending. The males spend their time doing one of two things: eating (they only gather nectar for themselves, and don’t share it) and hovering around, looking for sex. They aren’t subtle. A male carpenter bee will find a nice location where several females have made nests and, like that creepy guy following you around at the bar, hover. As the females come and go, he’ll chase them in the hope of a quick midair lay. If another male comes by, he’ll chase the rival away – presumably with threats of either biting or raping, because male carpenter bees do not have stingers.
Thing is, carpenter bees don’t see so good. They are quite nearsighted, and so any time they want to get a good look at something they have to hover right in front of it – and they tend to take an interest in anything that happens past, including you. Once the bee realizes you are neither a rival bee nor a hot chick bee, he’ll lose interest in you and go watch for something else. They aren’t choosy, either. Carpenter bee males have been known to “mate” with other insects and small birds – presumably because they mistake them for female bees, but they might just be that desperate. If you’re the type who is easily entertained (or your friends are) try tossing a bee-sized rock, and watch the bee chase it down and try to have sex with it.
Note that I’m not advising you to go grabbing carpenter bees every chance you get. Every once in a blue moon, that hovering bee will not be a male at all, but a female who is guarding the baby bees in her nest. Females do have stingers, and from what I hear they pack a wallop. However they don’t sting except as a very last resort, so as long as you don’t go grabbing them in your sweaty maws, you won’t need to learn the difference between a boy and a girl bee.
The only real danger carpenter bees pose to humans is property damage, and that’s mainly superficial anyway. Their tunnels tend to run right beneath the surface of the wood, rarely penetrating more than a half inch deep, and they always start with the entrance on the bottom, facing the ground. This is why it’s generally safe to sit on that park bench or picnic table, even if the lady bees have made it a home.
Some people with untreated wooden eaves on their houses get upset at the damage caused by carpenter bees – once a bee chooses her nest location, it can be damned hard to dissuade her. On top of that, her babies (and their babies, and their babies, and so on) will generally return to the same piece of wood to build new nests, which over time can lead to more serious damage – and the presence of a lot of hovering boy bees, which many people (myself included) instinctively find unsettling. To prevent carpenter bees moving into your wood (insert joke here) experts recommend staining, or even better painting, the underside.
Personally, I find that threatening to press charges works wonders with hovering males. Failing that, you can always turn the garden hose on them.