So here I am, a male Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, just enjoying the nectar on this tower of jewels, Echium wildpretii, in Vacaville, Calif.
Some folks call me "The teddy bear bee."
Yes, I like that nickname. The late Robbin Thorp (1913-2019), UC Davis distinguished emeritus professor of entomology, used to call me "the teddy bear bee" and display me at the Bohart Museum of Entomology open houses, because, well, for one, I am "cuddly"; two, I resemble a teddy bear; and three, I don't sting.
The good professor always used to say "Boy bees don't sting." That's true, but I can bluff pretty well.
They also say I'm handsome, what with my golden blond hair and green eyes. Aww, shucks!
"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" Me.
But just don't mess with me.
So here I am, as I earlier mentioned, just enjoying my share of nectar on this tower of jewels. Ooh, the nectar is divine. Divine, I say.
Wait! What's that? A honey bee, Apis mellifera, is trying to horn in on my territory.
"Hey, I was here first, Missy!"
Ms. Honey Bee shrugs. "Sorry, buddy boy, I'll take what I want."
Oh, the audacity, the audacity, I say. Doesn't she know that I'm bigger than she is? Okay, she's got a stinger, but I'm bigger and I can bluff my way out of this.
Whoops, she's moving! She's moving toward me! Oh, dear! She's closing in on me.
Umm...bye, bye, Echium wildpretii...your nectar isn't as good as I thought it would be. Not with that honey bee refusing to keep her social distance! I'm outta here!
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...
The boys are back in town.
After the long winter and rainy spring, the boys are back in town.
That would be the male Valley carpenter bees, Xylocopa varipuncta, or what Robbin Thorp, distinguished emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, calls "the teddy bear bees."
They're fuzzy green-eyed blonds, while the female of the species is a solid black, a good example of sexual dimorphism.
You've heard folks say of dogs: "Their bark is worse than their bite?" Well, these bees can't sting ("boy bees don't sting"), but they're good bluffers as they buzz around you. They're also good pollinators.
We saw this one nectaring on our tower of jewels, Echium wildpretii. He lingered among the honey bees and syrphid flies, and then buzzed off.
He will return.
Seeking more information about California's bees? Read the landmark book, California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (Heyday Press), the work of UC-affiliated authors Gordon Frankie, Robbin Thorp, Rollin E. Coville, and Barbara Ertte. The book is available online and at numerous other sites. At UC Davis, you can find it at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, 1124 Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane (and with other bee books at UC Davis Stores)./span>
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>
Meet the competitors.
In this corner, meet Mr. Teddy Bear. He's a blond, green-eyed carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, a native, and one of three species of carpenter bees commonly found from northern to southern California to western New Mexico.
In the other corner, meet Mr. Bodyslam. He's a European wool carder bee, Anthidium manicatum, a native of Europe. His "immigrant ancestor" was first detected in the United States (New York) in 1963, and the species spread west. The carder bee (so named because the female "cards" fuzz from plants for her nest) was first recorded in California (Sunnyvale) in 2007.
The competitors meet on foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, which yields dramatic pink-purple fingerlike flowers (and medicine for heart patients).
Mr. Teddy Bear is famished. He's doing what entomologists call "nectar robbing." He's drilling a hole in the corolla and drinking nectar, bypassing the usual plant-pollinator relationship. He's grabbing the reward and "cheating" by entering the flower from the outside, avoiding contact with the anthers.
Mr. Bodyslam is territorial. He's patrolling the foxglove patch--HIS foxglove patch--trying to save the nectar for his own species so he can mate with them. When he sees intruders, he targets them.
So here's Mr. Teddy Bear, drilling and sipping, sipping and drilling. Life is good.
"Hey, get away from my flowers and nobody gets hurt! They're mine!"
"Hey, I'm bigger than you. Get lost."
And the battle begins.
The winner, in this corner, Mr. Teddy Bear. He successfully avoided contact by crawling between the flowers (where Mr. Bodyslam couldn't reach him) and then sneaking to the corolla.
But once--just once--contact erupted. Ouch!