Where Have All the Big Bees Gone?

Carpenter bee life cycles

All spring long, big-bodied bees like carpenter bees have been a common sight—buzzing flower to flower and hovering near their nests. Yet now that summer has entered full swing, carpenter bees have seemingly disappeared. Is this cause for concern?

Assistant Professor, Dr. Elsa Youngsteadt says not to worry, “There are probably just as many bees in the summer as there were in the spring, but most of them are flightless and sealed up inside their nests. In the nest, they are feeding off pollen balls their mothers prepared for them.

While we may associate spring with new beginnings, spring is the last life stage for the adult carpenter bees who overwintered in their nests. These adults spend the spring procreating and preparing nests for the next generation before passing on. This is why you will often find sluggish bees on the ground during the beginning of summer. 

Right now, most of the adult carpenter bees are nearing the end of their life spans and are not very active,” explains Dr. Youngsteadt. “Most only live one year.”   

Carpenter bee life cycle
Although we may not always see them, carpenter bees are busy bodies all non-freezing months of the year.  Graphic made with BioRender.

Carpenter bees are one of the many native pollinator species Dr. Youngsteadt studies at the Department of Applied Ecology. They are considered a pest to some homeowners with exterminators charging $75-$400 per job¹.  However, little is known about carpenter bee impacts to houses or vice versa.  Dr. Yougsteadt’s work intends to collect the data needed to find solutions to these conflicts.  

We have several projects in the works with two main goals,” says Youngsteadt.  “One: We will find answers for home-owners who are worried about the bees possibly destroying their houses.  Two: We want to know if carpenter bee lifestyles have changed now that some have moved in to our modern dwellings as opposed to living in dead branches—before we came along and started milling lumber for them!”  

Dr. Yougsteadt’s team partners with the College of Veterinary Medicine to x-ray carpenter bee nests in order to study them without interfering with the bees’ busy-work.  “The [x-ray] records show, ‘Patient: Bees, Carpenter,'” Youngsteadt says.

X-ray of carpenter bee nests by Dr. Elsa Youngsteadt
X-ray of carpenter bee nests with larvae and pollen balls, as well as a few adults, visible.  Image provided by Dr. Elsa Youngsteadt, Michelle Cavalieri, and Donna Decker.

Whether you consider carpenter bees a pest or pollinating protagonist, you can expect to see the next generation at a flower near you by the end of July.  

Learn more about Dr. Youngsteadt’s work and how you, too, can become an ecologist.

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