I know bees are important, but…
I get calls all the time from people wanting a bee hive humainly removed, so I know they understand the importance of bees, but do they?
I can help people relocate Honey Bees and Bumblebee, these are both social creatures that have a colony and a physical nest that allows us to capture and relocate them successfully. What most people don’t understand is the majority of bees in New York City are solitary bees. Solitary bees work and live alone, as individuals, they do not have colonies or even a permanent home, no hive. Solitary bees spend their lives laying eggs in many different locations to ensure the next generation as they pollinate plants for food and then they die. It doesn’t matter how many you capture and relocate, or even kill, there will always be more and that’s a good thing; we need them!
Here in New York City our wild life is limited, so we need to respect and understand the animal neighbors we have. As far as bees, we have many spices but most people are aware of only a few. The Honey Bee is the first we think of, followed by our quickly disappearing Bumblebee, but another important bee that everyone loves to hate is our Carpenter Bees.
Carpenter Bees are very prolific in the city. They are often mistaken for Bumblebees since they look similar; very large and loud, with bright yellow and black furry bodies. Carpenter Bees have an advantage over other native bees that are being forced out of our city due to lose of habitat; Carpenter Bees have adapted to live in our man-made buildings. This is where the tension arises between city dwellers and this bee.
I was talking about bees pollinating gardens with a friend last year, let’s call him Tom. Tom was talking about all the flowers and vegetables he grows in his backyard. As a Staten Islander, Tom was talking about all the tomatoes he grows and how he use to have so many he couldn’t give them away. He then said in the last few years he was getting fewer and fewer tomatoes and was wondering why.
Pesticides? Mosquitos Spraying? GMOs? Liberals? Pollution? Climate Change?
These are all good scape goats but we eventually found the real problem. He asked if it would help his tomatoes if he started keeping a bee hive (honey bees). “No, Honey bees don’t pollinate Tomatoes…” I replied as he looked very confused.
Plants and bees have evolved over thousands of years together and many are very specialized. Different flower colors and smells will attract different pollinators and different shaped flowers require different shaped bees with different skills and tool.
Honey Bees use static electricity and combs or brushes to collect pollen from plants, but some bees use vibrations instead; tomatoes require the ladder, called Buzz-Pollination. The most famous Buzz-Pollinator is the Bumblebee but as they are dwindling, our friend the Carpenter Bee is keeping our buzz-pollinated plants alive in our city. Carpenter Bees are able to buzz or vibrate at a certain frequency that makes the pollen fall off the plant and onto the bee. Most other bees do not have this skill.
Back to my friend Tom, as I informed him that it was Carpenter Bees and not Honey Bees that he needs to make his Sunday Sauce (Gravy?); I could see the eureka moment in his eyes followed by the oh-crap moment. He realized that a few years ago he removed an old wooden shed from his backyard that was “infested” with Carpenter Bees… it wasn’t pesticides, climate changes or some other external woe that reduced his tomatoes crop, it was his own action that removed the needed bees from his yard.
Carpenter Bees need wood, in nature this is provided by dead or fallen trees. In the city we tend to clean these habitats away, so the urban carpenter bees have adapted to use painted wood and even treated wood. Eves or roofs, wooden fencing, patios & decks and utility poles seem to be preferred; but why do they need wood?
Of course they need wood, they are Carpenters, it’s in their name! Carpenter Bees are one of many “Tube Nesting” bees; bees that lay eggs inside tubes. Leafcutters Bees and Mason Bees are also common tube nesting bees you may have heard of, but the reason why Carpenter Bees are better in the city then others is the Carpenter Bee can drill new tubes, where other bees need to find preexisting tubes manly in dead leaves, stems and branches (more vital habitat that we obsessively throw away). Many bee population will simply die off due to loss of habitat but the Carpenter bee will drill more holes as fast as we can mow our lawns.
The Carpenter Bee is an amazing Carpenter, the holes are so exact you would think a man-made drill made it, each at ½ inch in diameter. They also have great sonar that let’s them know the thickness of the wood and prevents them from drill thou the other side by accident.
I hear people comparing Carpenter Bee damage to termite damage and this is false and not fare to the bees! Yes, they are doing some damage but it’s moderate and finite. Carpenter Bees are not eating the wood and they are not living in the tubes they drill. Termites will drill and drill, expanding more and more and will completely devour wood if not stopped, but Carpenter bees want the stability of the wooden structure to stay strong. They drill holes to create safe, protected locations for their eggs to over winter. After a Carpenter Bee finds or drills a new tube, it will lay eggs and food stores inside it. After the tube is full they will seal up the entrance and abandon the location. The next generation of bees will want to reuse these tubes again so they maintain them, keeping them dry and clean.
Ok…. Ok…. You still don’t want them above your front door. Capturing or trying to kill them is not practical, instead give them what they want. They want natural rotting wood, they only reason they are dealing with treated wood or painted wood is lack of a better option. If you have a garden area, include a pile of logs. Many benefits insects include bees will thank you. You can also install a “Bee Hotel”. After you have returned natural habit for them, then you can fill in or block the tubes. Remember you don’t want them gone, just not in your window frames.
I had a client call me last year with Carpenter Bees inside a utility pole in front of her house. She said there were hundreds of them, so many that people couldn't use the sidewalk! Didn’t I say these are solitary bees that live alone? Well yes, but what this client saw was (as I tried not to laugh over the phone) a bee orgy.
Every spring the eggs that survived the winter hatch, each tube is filled with many females and a few males. As they emerge from the tubes after eating the food stores left by their mother the previous year; its time to mate! Hopefully there are many tubes at the same location to reduce inbreeding but if not, oh well. It’s a race for each female to be mated before all the males die off. Once a female Carpenter bees is mated she can begin traveling, collecting pollen and filling tubes with the next generation. The mating season is only a week or two long; and each location will only be super active for a few days.
So what can you do if you see a Carpenter Bee orgy? Well, leave them alone! Even if its in a inconvenient location, it will be short, a few days to a week and then you will have a better ecosystem and a larger vegetable yield on your balcony. If you want to post it on OnlyBees, you can but please ask them permission first.
The title of this blog is “I know bees are important, but...” because I hear this from clients all the time. We all know bees are struggling, we all know without bees we will lose alot of our food, our society just may collapse completely without bees, but… I don’t want them near me. Bees are our neighbors and a very important part of our urban ecosystem. We do not need more urban beekeepers, but ever person will interact with some bees at some point and we all need to work together and respect each other. Our plight, the plight of the Bees is not exclusive to the bees we like, but to all bees.
Next time you see a loud, clumsy Carpenter Bees bumping into everything near by, thank her for your pizza.