Carpenter Bees

I don’t remember who it was, but years a go a neighborhood friend and I were sitting outside eating our sandwiches. All of a sudden he screamed and threw his sandwich on the ground — a bee had found its way into the egg salad and didn’t take kindly to being eaten. Fortunately, my little friend wasn’t allergic to bee stings.

I was young enough that this made an immediate and unshakable impression on me. I suppose I could have spent the rest of my life being terrified of egg salad sandwiches, but my child-brain settled more logically on fear of the stinging creature itself.

I’ve been stung myself a few times in these intervening years, and though it’s not an experience anyone enjoys, it obviously didn’t kill me, either. One time I stuck my bare foot into a shoe and discovered that solitary wasps can sting repeatedly. Another time a yellow jacket, dazed by chemicals sprayed into its nest a few days earlier, flew up my skirt and rudely stung the inside of my upper thigh. That one did cause a nasty reaction, though I’m not convinced it was allergic on my part; I think the poor creature just returned our toxic favor. But now I carry one of those bee-sting injection kits, just in case.

Last year I discovered carpenter bees. These are impressive fliers, since clearly their bodies are much too large for those filmy little wings to support; they are encumbered with a ponderous, shiny black rear segment that looks like armor with a rather attractive purplish or greenish patina. In spite of their hefty build, they zip around like humming birds, hovering motionless in the air for long periods of time before zooming upward or sideways or just disappearing so quickly I can’t tell where they’ve gone. They sound like mini-helicopters to me. Impressive.

Our school/convent building was designed by a California architect, so naturally it’s redwood. Boy, do the CB’s like that. Just about this time each year they wake up and begin preparations for mating, which means the males scout out a nice wooden locale and then begin to bore amazingly precise 1/2″ holes in it. You can actually hear them drilling. If left to their own devices for years, they can take down a building.

But I’m more impressed with the creature itself. The males protect the nesting site by hovering menacingly outside. The larger the site, the more boys hang out in the ‘hood. There is usually only one female causing all the activity. The males behave as if they have testosterone poisoning — even their buzzing sounds mean and aggressive. They make a beeline (sorry) for anyone who comes too close to the nest entrance, and if you didn’t know any better you’d back off in a hurry.

The problem is these guys have no stinger. Not even a little one. Lots of bark but no bite. I think the only damage they could cause would be to fly in your eye, and that’s not very likely. Now the queen can cause a lot of trouble, having a quite meaningful stinger; but she only uses it if she’s actually handled roughly, a feat no one is likely to try anyway.

I just love Nature, don’t you? Here are all these aggressive, macho bees dive-bombing humans and skunks and anything else within reach (and pretty much scaring the daylights out of all of us) … but they can’t do anything more than look and sound dangerous. Amazing. A wee tick can make you miserable without you even knowing it has buried its head in your skin; a honker bee can chase you twenty feet in about one second, yet is capable of little more than ruffling your hair.

Wouldn’t it be just grand if humans could holler up a storm, but couldn’t figure out how to build bombs or what to do with an Uzi?


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