Bees are integral parts of most ecosystems, pollinating plants, flowers and trees that, in turn, release life-sustaining oxygen and produce nourishing fruits, nuts and vegetables. Recent challenges to bee populations have increased awareness of bees' importance, with more people understanding that if bees disappear, our species will struggle to survive. Bee species that are often confused are bumblebees and carpenter bees, two very different bugs that happen to have similar appearances.
By a Hair
When a large, hairy, yellow and black bug streaks by, most just flinch instead of wondering what kind of a bee it was. Bumblebees and carpenter bees are big, imposing bugs, both measuring around an inch in length, with bright yellow and solid black coloration on their bodies. They're not identical, however, and can be distinguished by their abdomens: The top of a bumblebee's abdomen is covered in colorful hairs, while a carpenter bee's abdomen is hairless and shiny black.
A Stinger's Length of Difference
Despite their similar appearances, the carpenter bee and bumblebee are completely different insects with distinct behavior traits and, for the bee-wary, proneness to sting is an important differentiation. Bumblebees are generally docile creatures, though anyone who's encountered an agitated colony can attest to the fact that they can and will sting. A carpenter bee disturbed in the wild is likely to put on a territorial show of aggression but, as this is the behavior of a male specimen, he cannot sting. A female carpenter bee can deliver a painful sting but rarely does, reserving this defensive action for protection of a nest she's readying in a piece of wood or for when she's physically handled.
Nesting: Where and How
Nesting habits of carpenter bees and bumblebees are the bugs' biggest difference, with the buzzers employing distinct methods to create characteristic habitats. Bumblebees live in social colonies that are most often found in the ground, sites such as deserted rodent nests that are scouted and established by queens in late summer. Carpenter bee females build nests in unpainted, untreated wood, boring finger-wide holes that can extend 6 to 10 inches deep. To the chagrin of many homeowners, house eaves often make appealing carpenter bee nesting spots.
Relationship to Humans
Both bumblebees and carpenter bees are powerful pollinators but, though neither enjoys the special treatment beekeepers show honeybees (building houses, feeding, sweating over colony survival), bumblebees are generally safer from humans than carpenter bees. While an unruly bumblebee colony may invoke the wrath of an oft-stung homeowner, carpenter bees are routinely eradicated from structures with pesticides, a necessary recourse against the economic effects of wood-destroying insects. Carpenter bee treatment involves use of a state-approved pesticide that is either sprayed or “puffed” into a nesting hole; the hole is left open for a few days to allow insecticide distribution, then plugged and repaired after the treatment has been deemed effective.
Rodney Wilson is owner and manager of Goldfinch Farm in central Kentucky, where he oversees veterinary and management practices for a diverse group of animals, from dogs and cats to pigs and chickens. He's written professionally since 2001, with articles appearing in such publications as The Cincinnati Enquirer, CiN Weekly, Baby Guide and Akron Life.