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Post: Controlling cantankerous carpenter bees

By Joy Crane

Summer is here, and the South African Wood Preservers Association (SAWPA) is fielding calls from horrified homeowners threatened by large buzzing woodborers attacking and eating the truss overhangs on their roofs.

However, the culprits are not woodborers or bumble bees, they are indigenous Carpenter bees (Xylocopa species) that are usually active from October to the end of February.

Carpenter bees are larger than honeybees, hairy, often colourful and their wings make a loud buzzing sound while flying. They are mainly black in colour but can range from greenish black to blueish black or purple in colour, with white or yellow markings on the top of their bodies. The females often have different colouration.

Carpenter bees do not produce honey but are important pollinators of crops and wild plants. While they do have quite a painful sting, they are not aggressive and only sting in defence. Individuals live independently of the others or in small groups.

Our Carpenter bees feed on a broad range of plants including indigenous flowering plants like Orphium frutescens, Dissotis spp., and Chironia laxa. Did you know we rely on them to buzz pollinate many common food plants like tomatoes, beans, apples, granadilla, blueberries, potatoes, eggplants, and cranberry?

Carpenter Bee
Xylocopa species

How does buzz pollination work?

According to a wacky bee enthusiast, “If you listen carefully, you’ll notice a change in the frequency of the buzz once the bee lands on the flower and clasps the anther. It rises slightly to “middle C” as the rate at which it beats its wings changes.

The bee disengages its flight muscles from the wings to reduce unnecessary wing movement and uses these muscles to shake the anthers violently. The anthers respond to the sound frequency caused by the vibrations by opening up pores at their tips to shower the little insect in pollen. The carpenter bees eat the high-protein rich pollen and wipe it down their bodies to fill small sacks on their lower legs, ready to carry their plunder back to the hive.

Nesting

The bees nest in tree trunks, dead wood, bamboo, or structural timber. They bore tunnels in wood materials, which is why they are known as carpenter bees. These burrows or tunnels are nests used to raise their young ones and are constructed into separate compartments for each bee larvae.

In residential and built up areas they tend to make their burrows in the overhanging roof rafters. Breeding is seasonal which means the bees will return annually, or more often. This expands their tunnels and over many years the damage can be extensive and lead to structural failure.

The bees do not ingest or eat the wood, so they are not your typical wood destroying insects like woodborers or termites that attack wood as a source of food. Since the wood is not a source of food, they can even burrow into pressure treated CCA timber and poles.

Kill notes

SAWPA has issued a Guidance Note on Carpenter bees on its website that includes ideas on how to kill them.

SAWPA suggests two options.

  • Insecticide
    Use a contact insecticide and spray it directly onto the bees as they move in and out of their nests. However, this only deals with the ones that are sprayed. Once the insecticide sprayed into the hole evaporates, it loses its effectiveness. It also has virtually no effect on the young ones who are snugly protected within their separate closed off compartments.

    To effectively deal with them apply a generous amount of a gel-based insecticide into the burrow. A homemade mixture of petroleum jelly and an insecticide can also be made. After applying the gel-based poison, close the hole with a dowel. This ensures that any adult bee coming into contact with the gel will die, and when the young ones are ready to leave the nest, they have to get past the gel and die when trying to eat through the dowel.
  • Bee trap
    The trap lets the bees enter but they cannot escape and starve to death.

    The trap is a square box made of wood with 12mm holes drilled on the sides. The holes are drilled at a slight upward angle so that rainwater is kept out, like the method used by the bees when making the entrance to their own burrows. An empty transparent container such as a plastic water bottle is attached over an opening at the bottom of the trap so that it can be removed. The bees are attracted to light and tend to move from the box into the transparent container without being able to get out again.


Humane notes

If you prefer not to use chemicals, there are several Google recipe ideas. For example:

  • Spray citrus scent
    Use any kind of citrus fruit such as oranges, lemon, grapefruit, and lime. Squeeze out the juice or use the peels of the fruit and put it in a pot of water. Allow it to boil for a while. Pour the citrus solution into a spray bottle and sprinkle the citrus aroma all over the place. The refreshing smell of the citrus fruits leaves an ethereal smell to the house while repelling the bees away. The insect cannot stand the fragrance of citrus fruits.
  • Oil
    Certain oils have a property that repels Carpenter Bees and keeps them at bay. Mix some lavender oil, tea tree oil, jojoba oil and citronella oil in a bowl. Pour the mixture of oil into a spray bottle and spritz the whole area with the essential oil mixture. The essence of the oil refreshes the home and keeps the Carpenter Bees away. The organic spray causes no harm to others and serves as a repellent for the Carpenter Bees.
  • Brew garlic, oil, and vinegar
    Add a few cloves of garlic in a bowl or jar of cooking oil for a few days. Then add some white vinegar into the bowl. Make sure the white vinegar is more acidic in nature. Spray the solution around the tunnels and keep a regular check on it. If you still spot few Carpenter Bees keep applying until all of the Carpenter Bees have been driven away. You can also apply garlic powder directly into the Carpenter bee holes to eradicate the insects. Using garlic powder is more effective.


Other methods

  • Varnish or paint the walls and all wooden surfaces at home. It deters the bees from chewing into the wood.
  • Swat the bee with a sports racquet. This old fashioned technique works when you see them buzzing around your home. Take aim and hit it!
  • Use an appropriate size vacuum nozzle that will fit the tunnel hole. Vacuum inside the hole to suck the bees from inside the tunnels and eradicate the colony. Use this approach during the initial stages of the nesting and in the evening when the bees are in the tunnels. It is an effective way to get rid of them.
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  • Hin-Tech Manufacturing
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  • Loadtech Load Cells
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  • Merensky
  • Mondi
  • Those who grow alone, die alone: why transformation is strategic for the MTO Group
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  • Patula Risk
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  • Rance Timbers
  • Sabie Poles
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  • Sappi
  • Saw Specialists
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