Carpenter Bees, Help!

I received a text from someone in the neighborhood asking for help in saving the carpenter bees that had taken up residence in her garage. I texted her back and gave her my usual spiel about the time I had carpenter bees living in my garage, and how I called up Mike McGrath and got on the radio show “You Bet Your Garden”. His advice was, basically, that carpenter bees are highly beneficial native pollinators (the kind we should be saving because we need them to pollinate our food crops!), usually don’t cause structural damage, and don’t sting. So I left them alone.

For those of you who don’t know what carpenter bees are, they look like gigantic bumble bees except with shiny, black bald abdomens. The males, the ones that hang out in front of the nests and can rather aggressively dive bomb you if you get too close, don’t actually have stingers. The females do have stingers, but are very unlikely to do so unless you are actually disturbing their nest. In recent years, I have many carpenter bees on my property and I suspect they are nesting primarily in the salvaged logs I use as garden edging, and a few of them may have taken up residence in the wood of my salad tables.

Me watering my salad table where carpenter bees may be living.

Me watering my salad table where carpenter bees may be living.

They can be seen diligently working the roses, raspberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, tomatillos, and many other plants in my garden. There are many websites out there telling you how they are going to cause major structural damage to your house and must be vaporized or your house will fall down. Break out the insecticide, wd 40, or whatever else you can get and take aim.

As is the case with many things in life, the answer is somewhere in the middle. The truth is, while these bees are extremely gentle, the females can sting. The truth is, while they tunnel slowly and aren’t going to destroy your house quickly (they are not as dangerous to your woodwork as, say, termites or carpenter ants) they can, slowly, over time, do quite a bit of damage, especially if they like your house and a large colony develops over many years. If that’s the case, then, yes, you’re going to get structural damage.

So back to the woman with the carpenter bees in her garage. Without seeing anything, it sounded to me like she may have a large number of them in her garage. She can actually hear them digging and buzzing when she goes in there. My initial advice to her was to wait until spring when the overwintered larvae had just hatched and the holes are as empty as possible…and then patch up the holes and diligently paint the surfaces. If necessary, have rotten and/or soft wood replaced by a (human) carpenter. Don’t use caulk to fill the holes but something like steel wool in the holes or screen over the holes, that will be harder for them to dig through. They don’t like painted surfaces as much as unpainted, soft wood, so providing suitable nesting sites for them somewhere else on the property is a good way to keep them around without encouraging damage to buildings.

Then she mentioned the elderly neighbor with the bee allergy. Now THAT was going to change the situation. It seems as though the neighbor is very afraid of them and wants them gone. He’s citing a city ordinance about removing bees from within a certain distance from a home where someone with a bee allergy lives. I am not familiar with the ordinance regarding bee allergies, but irregardless, that is a legitimate concern. The chances of getting stung by a carpenter bee is very low unless you are directly messing with the nest, but the consequences of getting stung, for the neighbor, could be lethal if in fact he has a serious allergy. In that case the fate of the bees is really up to how comfortable the neighbor is in waiting a while to have the bees removed and how willing he is to take precautions in the meantime. It didn’t sound as though the neighbor is interested in saving the bees.

In the end I recommended that she find an environmentally friendly exterminator and remove them a.s.a.p. I also recommended that she get any weak or soft wood professionally repaired, and to keep it painted and monitored for any returning bees. We talked about any possible way of saving the bees living there now, but the only thing I could think of was a (human) carpenter with a bee suit who would be willing to remove pieces of wood with bees in them and relocated them someplace safe (like a forest preserve or community garden). I have a bee suit but am no carpenter. She felt really bad, but I told her in this situation the best thing she could do for the bees is make sure they don’t come back and waste resources building nests in a place they can’t stay. I felt really bad recommending an exterminator, and she really doesn’t want hire one, but in this case it seemed like the appropriate response.

I always cringe when I hear people talk about “pest control” as if the living creatures involved are somehow waging a war against us and we must fight back against the deadly foe. The truth is they just want food, shelter and a place to raise their young, just like us. The truth is we need many of these “pests” to have a healthy ecosystem. Often creatures that we deem to be “pests” only cause us problems when they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, but, like these carpenter bees, are extremely beneficial to the environment as well as to humans under the right circumstances.

I would love to see more conversations like the one I had about the carpenter bees. Time and effort was given into thinking of the well-being of the bees and extermination is a last resort. Also in situations like this I like to think of considering an act of fostering life to help balance out the act of dealing death. If the carpenter bees in this particular garage need to die, what will be done to offset this act? Some ideas include building some carpenter bee or mason bee or beneficial insect houses for a community garden, research and make a point of educating people about how to co-exist with carpenter bees, or plant something that would feed beneficial insects (but not near the home of the allergic neighbor).

I believe that if we stopped thinking about pest control as “waging war” and instead focused the conversation on finding ways to co-exist, with dealing death as a last resort done regretfully, that attitude would eliminate many of the problems we are having with overuse of pesticides and herbicides. It would have a huge impact on creating a healthy environment for all creatures. It makes an interesting thought experiment to consider your most hated pests and think of how they are in fact good creatures that are important to the environment in some way, even if we humans can’t fathom it. Try it. It is hard. Here’s my list of creatures I’m tempted to wage war on: yellow jackets, house ants, cockroaches, rats. Termites and cabbage worms. Mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. Japanese beetles. Oh, and let’s not forget slugs. What is your list? Yup, we need all of those things too.

I  have killed or would kill any one of the creatures in this list, but can I do it as a last resort and regretfully? Can I consider the place these creatures might hold in my local ecosystem and how my killing it might affect other things, or how my pest control methods might harm other species? Only by weighing these aspects can we make a good decision about how to deal with pests.


Impossible Garden August 2013

I thought I’d take you along with me on my morning stroll through the garden. The video ends with a puff of smoke from the smoker I am about to use to inspect my beehive. Instead of trying to explain everything to you though I thought I’d let the garden speak for itself…