Remember the biblical story about David and Goliath? How young David, the underdog, defeats a Philistine giant?
Sometimes you think the same kind of battle will occur in nature when a honey bee, Apis mellifera, encounters a much larger carpenter bee, the Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta.
We recently spotted a female Valley carpenter bee foraging on a mustard blossom, while her smaller cousin, the honey bee buzzed in, hoping to share. Both belong to the order Hymenoptera and the family, Apidae. The carpenter bee is a native. The honey bee is not.
What happened? The honey bee discreetly moved out of the way and let the carpenter bee claim her bounty.
California has three species of carpenter bees.
- The biggest is the Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta. It's about an inch long. The female is solid black, while the male, commonly known as "the teddy bear bee," is a green-eyed blond. Why teddy bear? It's fuzzy and does not sting--or as the late Robbin Thorp (1933-2019), UC Davis emeritus professor of entomology, used to say: "Boy bees don't sting."
- The second largest is the California carpenter bee or Western carpenter bee, Xylocopa californica, often found in the mountain foothill areas of northern and southern California. It's known for its distinctive distinctive bluish metallic reflections on the body, Thorp says. The females have dark smoky brown wings.
- The smallest is the foothill or mountain carpenter bee, Xylocopa tabaniformis orpifex. The females are black with light smoky-colored wings. The male has bright yellow marks on the lower part of its face and some yellow hairs on the top front of its thorax.
Still my favorite carpenter bee is the male X. varipuncta, the green-eyed blond. You don't see it as much as the female of the species, but wow! Now to photograph them in the same picture...
Some folks call them "bumble bees," but they're not.
In size, the female Valley carpenter bee (Xylocopa varipuncta) resembles a bumble bee, but certainly not in color.
The female Valley carpenter is solid black with metallic wings. The male of the species is a green-eyed blond, fondly known as "the teddy bear" bee because it's fuzzy-wuzzy and cannot sting. Entomologists will tell you that the male and female are dramatic examples of sexual dimorphism. Yes, they are!
We've been seeing a lot of female Valley carpenter bees lately on our blue spike salvia, (Salvia uliginosa). They engage in nectar-robbing: this occurs when bees circumvent the usual plant-pollinator relationship and "cheat" by entering a flower from the outside to steal nectar. They drill a hole in the corolla to reach the nectar, thus avoiding pollination or contact with the anthers.
Similar-looking insects include bumble bees, cactus flies and horse flies, according to California Bees and Blooms, a Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists,by UC-affiliated authors Gordon Frankie, Robbin Thorp, Rollin Coville, and Barbara Ertter. "Carpenter bees are shinier and have less hair than fuzzy bumble bees. Carpenter bees have two pairs of wings, and they have long, slender, elbowed antennae, while fly mimics have only one pair of wings, and short stubby antennae."
The Valley carpenter bee is California's largest carpenter bee.
They're large but they're elusive. They usually don't linger long for you to grab a photo. This one did. It was early in the morning, and like a true human morning person, she declined to move fast./span>
There's an old saying applicable to child-rearing: "First you give them roots, and then you give them wings."
Roots to ground them, to love them unconditionally. And wings for them to lift off and launch new beginnings.
Quote Investigator attributes the origin to newspaper editor Hodding Carter's book, "Where Main Street Meets the River," published in 1953. Carter credited a "wise woman" with saying that:
"A wise woman once said to me that there are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these she said is roots, the other, wings. And they can only be grown, these roots and these wings, in the home..."
But have you ever walked through a pollinator garden and been awestuck by the beauty of wings? The iridescence wings of a female Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta?
It was Sunday, May 21 and the feeding frenzy on our showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, was in full swing: it was a pushing, shoving and sipping match for the honey bees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, lady beetles, and syrphid flies.
But it was the wings--and wing venation--of a carpenter bee sparkling in the sunlight that caught our attention.
The wing venation "clearly shows a couple of characteristic features of Xylocopa wing venation: the long slender marginal cell and the 'boot-shaped'" second submarginal ('toe' pointing toward head end)," noted native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, and co-author of California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists.
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, also weighed in. "They are lovely. Not too many wasps or bees wings have this iridescence. That's an old lady by the way. Look how worn her wings are."
The LOL loved the showy milkweed. But she's the one that put on the show.
He's the bully in the bee garden.
If you've ever watched the male European wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) patrolling "his" flower patch, you'll see him targeting insects several times larger than he is.
Take the case of the Valley carpenter bee (Xylocopa varipuncta), one of the largest bees in California. The female is solid black, while the male is a green-eyed blond.
Last week we were watching female Valley carpenter bees trying to gather some nectar from a bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis) when the much smaller male carder bee dive-bombed her.
The male was also dive-bombing and body-slamming honey bees, sweat bees leafcuter bees and other bees, in addition to butterflies. They do that to "save" the flowers for their own species and perchance to mate!
As the sun set, the sleepy male carder bees headed over to a bee condo to grab some shuteye.
The bee condo was meant for nesting blue orchard bees (which pollinate the almonds in the spring).
Bee condos can also be occupied by other critters, including spiders, wasps and European wool carder bees!
Bees--and other pollinators--gravitate toward the enticing aroma of the milkweed, too.
The milkweed is widely known as the larval host plant of the monarch butterflies--and a nectar source for the adults--but they have to share.
The broadleaf milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, in our pollinator garden draws everything from honey bees to leafcutter bees to carpenter bees.
It's almost like "Take a number." And it's especially noticeable during National Pollinator Week, a week set aside to celebrate the pollinators and to do what we can to protect them.
Recent visitors to the milkweed have included:
- A male Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, a green-eyed blond
- A female Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, solid black
- Honey bee, Apis mellifera
- Male leafcutter bee, Megachile sp.
And, of course, the monarchs (Danaus plexippus)!