Carpenter bees (the genus Xylocopa in the subfamily Xylocopinae) are large, hairy bees distributed worldwide. There are some 500 species of carpenter bee in 31 subgenera.
Their name comes from the fact that nearly all species build their nests in burrows in dead wood, bamboo, or structural timbers (except those in the subgenus Proxylocopa, which nest in the ground).
Members of the related tribe Ceratinini are sometimes referred to as “small carpenter bees”.
The genus was described by French entomologist Pierre André Latreille in 1802. The name is derived from the Ancient Greek “wood-cutter”.
In several species, the females live alongside their own daughters or sisters, creating a sort of social group. They use wood bits to form partitions between the cells in the nest.
A few species bore holes in wood dwellings. Since the tunnels are near the surface, structural damage is generally minor or nonexistent.
Carpenter bees can be important pollinators on open-faced flowers, even obligate pollinators on some, such as the Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), though many species are also known to “rob” nectar by slitting the sides of flowers with deep corollas.
In the United States, there are two eastern species, Xylocopa virginica, and Xylocopa micans, and three other species that are primarily western in distribution, Xylocopa varipuncta, Xylocopa tabaniformis opined and Xylocopa californica. X. virginica is by far the more widely distributed species.
Some are often mistaken for a bumblebee species, as they can be similar in size and coloration, though most carpenter bees have a shiny abdomen, while in bumblebees the abdomen is completely clothed with dense hair.
Males of some species have a white or yellow face, where the females do not; males also often have much larger eyes than the females, which relates to their mating behavior.
Male bees are often seen hovering near nests, and will approach nearby animals.
However, males are harmless, since they do not have a stinger. Female carpenter bees are capable of stinging, but they are docile and rarely sting unless caught in the hand or otherwise directly provoked.
Carpenter bees make nests by tunneling into wood, vibrating their bodies as they rasp their mandibles against the wood, each nest having a single entrance which may have many adjacent tunnels.