Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

My carpenter bees have returned. Can it truly be summer without these sweet garden visitors?


Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

Order: Hymenoptera (hy-men-OP-ter-a)
Family: Apidae
Subfamily: Xylocopinae
Genus: Xylocopa
Subgenus: (Xylocopoides)
Species: X. virginica
Common Names: Eastern Carpenter Bee, Wood Bee

Appearance: Carpenter bees are often confused with bumble bees (Bombus). Bumble bees are generally fuzzy and often have bands of yellow on their bodies. Carpenter bees, specifically the Eastern Carpenter Bee, can be clearly identified by their slick, shiny, black abdomen. The thorax of the carpenter bee (directly behind the head) is usually covered with yellow, orange, or white hairs. Female carpenter bees have solid black faces, while males have a patch of white cuticle on their face.

Habitat: Wooded areas as well as man-made structures. They do not consume wood; these bees thrive on nectar.

Nesting: Preferring a solitary life, carpenter bees live alone in the tunnels. Females chew a tunnel into the wood, with small bee-sized galleries branching from the central tunnel. Females will drive adult offspring away however it isn’t uncommon to find a young daughter sharing space with her mother.

Inside their rounded branched galleries, they form pollen/nectar loaves upon which they lay their giant eggs (up to 15 mm long). The female forms partitions between each egg cell by mixing sawdust and her saliva together. These partition walls are very similar to particle board!
Carpenter bees are long lived, up to three years and there can be one or two generations per year. Often newly hatched daughters, live together in their nest with their mother.

Biologists using observation nests or X-ray imaging techniques have observed returning foragers feeding other nest mates. These observations have led some entomologists to consider carpenter bees primitively social. However, unlike honey bees and bumble bees there are no queen or worker castes, only individual males and females. ~ US Forest Service 
Social: Groups of females may share the same area. Males and females do not share a nest.

Behavior: Carpenter bees appear clumsy, often bouncing along a wood surface. They are dazzling in mid-air, deftly weaving around obstacles and zinging after rival insects. Both sexes are mild-tempered however males are protective and will bounce against perceived threats.

The audible, low “buzz” you hear is due to powerful, vibrating thoracic muscles. Pollination is possible because of this sonication (sound “energy” is used to agitate dry pollen particles out of the flower. The pollen lands upon the bee’s body, is transported to the next flower, and then vibrated off).

Benefits: carpenter bees are generalists, content to forage wild flowers, vegetable flowers such as eggplant and tomato, and decorative garden flowers. They are most busy in the early morning although I have seen them visiting my dogwood and mimosa trees as late as dusk. They are excellent at keeping wasps at bay, given the male’s protective tendency.

Bee herding:
I have several areas where I do not want bees. The wood rails by my back door are an invitation to accidental “fly ins” whenever the door is held open for the dogs. The male bees also take issue with my coming and going. The bees are quick borers and I can’t always prevent new holes appearing. I cover the holes with wood putty. The female may be trapped inside but her death won’t harm anything.

Carpenter Bee and Passion Flower by Peter Loewer
You can hang a vertical board in your garden or erect a small, bare-wood decorative fence. This “offering” allows you to keep your pollinators happy while offering an alternative to your deck. Some people hang a simple pine board. Other makes a bee preserve, erecting a board and surrounding it with flowers. Keep in mind that the carpenter bee is too large to enter long, tubular flowers such as those found on penstemons and salvias. They use their powerful mandibles (mouth parts) to cut the corolla base and access the nectar without pollinating the flower.

Pesky males can be a deck enjoyment killer for many people. Take heart: males don’t sting. They will, however, bump against you and generally make a pest of themselves (not to mention serving as unwilling playtoys for my German Shepherd!) They are protecting their territory. You can distract them by tossing bee-sized rocks away from you; males tend to chase the rock.

Females can sting. They are generally tolerant of people and animals unless you go out of your way to handle them or are aggressive with them. People with allergies to bee venom should seek medical treatment if stung.

Gardeners usually live in harmony with these bees. You can gently push them out of the way while harvesting vegetables or tending flowers. I have noticed that they behave like honey bees when exposed to smoke; a quick exhale of cigarette smoke tends to pacify an intrepid male.

Bee prevention:
If you build it, they will come. Carpenter bees fancy wooden shutters, fence posts, door jambs, the wooden support beams under decks, wood shingles – sound wood is wood and weathered wood is downright nice. Look into coating your wood with polyurethane or oil-base paint. Carpenter bees like redwood so you may want to build using man-made materials.


A note about exterminating carpenter bees:
Pollinator decline is a serious environmental problem. Carpenter bees are an important pollinator in your garden. There are several ways to deter these bees in their quest to bore into your house, shed or deck. I personally love the appearance of natural wood decks but I also don’t mind the holes.

Having said that, there are times when the carpenter bee has overstayed its welcome. I strongly recommend that you contact a professional exterminator rather than attempting to tackle the job by yourself, especially when the nests are in locations that are difficult or dangerous to access.

"Despite its apparent lack of marquee appeal, a decline in pollinator populations is one form of global change that actually has credible potential to alter the shape and structure of terrestrial ecosystems." Entomologist May R. Berenbaum, University of Illinois

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Photographs: © 2011 T. Mininni-Totin
Lithograph: Carpenter Bee and Passion Flower Created by Peter Loewer, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.
Further information: US Forest Service (http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/carpenter_bees.shtml)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

First Spring Evening

Birdsong peppers the air, a long anticipated assortment of dulcet chirps and coarse croaks and clacks. I’ve drawn the old glass table from its cozy wintering spot and wiped away a season of grime. How better to enjoy blogging than to set up camp on our fading deck and breathe in spring’s arrival as I type?

This weather stirs the imagination as kindly as it awakens dormant vegetation. Willow and dogwood branches, early in bud, invite visitors to take into account all of the sweet treasures to come. The perfume of grass and humid earth mingle with the plethora of burning charcoal throughout the neighborhood. Bleeding hearts form soft maroon and bright green mounds in the flower beds, and the lamb’s ear leaves rise upward in worship of the sun.

Spring and summer are the seasons that rejuvenate me; while I still reserve autumn as my favorite month, there is a special magic about the former two.  

Friday, April 1, 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011

First Spring Crocuses

The weather has been lovely this weekend. Jeff and I traveled to Toronto for his birthday treat and then walked our flower beds to visit the crocus blooms.





Friday, March 4, 2011

Spring Thoughts on Pembroke Cottage

The pitter-patter of tiny raindrop feet heralds spring’s rebirth. It has not formally arrived, and surely won’t for another month or two, but the warmer temperatures stir my soul and my thoughts turn towards my dormant and hoary front garden.

My home, christened Pembroke Cottage the day I moved in, is surrounded by untended beds and rotted leaves; it looks terrible. There isn’t anything charming about the property although the house and back building still stand proud.

Pembroke Cottage isn’t a “cottage” by modern definition, although it sits on Pembroke Lane. It is Dutch colonial with craftsman propensities. Perfectly square and sporting a gambrel hat, the “cottage” was most likely a catalog home, arriving in a railway boxcar and hauled into the heart of pastureland and woods.

In a physical sense, the property falls into descriptions from the Middle Ages: the word cottage (MLat cotagium ) denoted not just a dwelling, but included at least a dwelling (domus ) and a barn (grangia ), as well as, usually, a fenced yard or piece of land enclosed by a gate (portum ).


The house stood on its own with only a few neighbors surrounding it. We were the hidden homes beyond Lover’s Lane, standing sentinel amidst the locust and buckeye trees that dominated the landscape (). Today the trees are gone and the home is kept company by mid-to-late-century dwellings in the sprawling Country Club area (the original clubhouse built at the same time as our home). We still do not have gutters or curbs. Our lane can accommodate only one vehicle at a time.

Our green tea-coloured siding is offset by a deep burgundy front door and window shutters, white porch fixtures and the intense green hues of our front garden. Normally so. Last season was dismal. I hadn’t much time to tend to the beds. The grass, haphazardly sown by the previous owner, is a hodgepodge of grass shoots, yellow woodsorrel, and roundleaf mallow.  I’m dreading what spring begets this year.

I’ve turned to trusty sources for inspiration. I’ve ordered fresh catalogs and reviewed old photographs of my gardens’ previous displays. This will be the year to gut everything that does not work, divide or transplant things that no longer fit properly, and recapture the dense cottage ambiance.


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“Pembroke” and “Cottage” are a fairly popular combination. Michael & Wanda Fairless of Guthrie, OK, offer a guest house aptly named Pembroke Cottage (it also sits on Pembroke Lane). The Guthries and I are not particularly clever with our home’s names but our hearts are in the right place.

Locust trees (Gleditsia triacanthos and Robinia pseudoacacia) and Buckeye trees (Aesculus glabra) can still be found throughout our area. They border our highways and fill our valleys.

Cyndi’s Catalog of Garden Catalogs is an excellent source of information for new gardeners. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A break in the weather

Heavy winter snows and deafening thunderstorms have tentatively conceded to clear skies. Tepid daylight filters through my windows. The air, laden with the scent of damp earth, remains crisp but tolerable upon the skin.
Buds are visible on the pale branches of my crabapple trees, and the red maple seems to bask in anticipation of spring’s approach. Song birds alight on branches and bramble; it is close to migratory season for warblers and soon our yards will momentarily play host to their vibrant blue, yellow and red plumages.  Chipmunks emerged from their dens today, blinking and rubbing paws over their short shouts and empty cheeks.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Of Thrush and Adventures

Dear Guest,

I awoke this morning to the sound of male robins proclaiming their territory. The crisp "cheerily, cheeriup, cheerio, cheerily" was a cherished sound, and one not heard in several months. The first birdsong of spring was in the air; winter was loosening her grasp. I yearned to step outside and explore.

My other blog, the Bemused Muse, has long been a dumping ground for my various nature outings. Posts are lost amidst daily life entries, science entries, commentary entries, and entries that perhaps reflect upon previous entries. The Knocking Thrush will be, hopefully, a collection of the small discoveries made when I step away from the complexity of life and allow myself to become lost in the natural wonderment of each season.

The blog name may sound familiar to you if you have read The Hobbit.  "Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's day will shine upon the keyhole", or so Thorin’s map indicated. The riddle was forgotten by time the dwarves and Bilbo reached the doorstep. All might have been lost had an old thrush not cracked a snail at just the opportune moment.  

The above text and map was taken from the 50th Anniversary edition of the The Hobbit. The map is attributed to Christopher Tolkien (based on his father's sketch, a facsimile of which is also shown in the anniversary edition).

This same thrush, having overheard Bilbo’s recounting of his initial meeting with Smaug, perched upon Bard’s shoulder and spoke of the dragon’s weak spot. The bird later assisted Thorin by bringing an ancient raven, Ro├Ąc son of Carc, to him. Busy bird.

Thrush are Passeriformes (perching birds) of the suborder Passeri, Family Turdidae.  The Thrush wears the crown for most beautiful in song.  I haven’t any idea what sort of thrush Tolkien envisioned. I don’t think he had the red breast of Turdus migratorius, the American Robin, in mind.

This blog was created in honor of the first Spring thrush-song, and of Tolkien. I hope to add to it once the weather brightens.

Enjoy.

~T. Mininni-Totin