Scientific name : Xylocopa violacea
Violet Carpenter Bees are big, beautiful and completely harmless to us – they may look a little intimidating, but they don’t sting. On first impressions the bees may appear to be completely black in colour, but when the sunlight catches their wings, a beautiful purple-blue sheen is reflected there, hence their scientific name of ‘violacea‘.
The bees visit flowering plants and shrubs throughout the spring and summer, but may be seen on the wing as early in February or even January where flowers are present. On cooler days in the early spring they often ‘sunbathe’ on the warm trunks of trees, wooden fence posts and the like. The bees are very efficient pollinators of open flowers but as with several species of bumblebees, they can also ‘cheat’ and steal nectar from long tubular flowers, using their their size and weight to break into them from above, taking the sweet reward without collecting and distributing any pollen.
Despite their size the bees are not aggressive and their mission in life is simply to collect nectar and pollen from flowers. The male does not have the ability to sting, and as is the case with most species of bee, the female will only sting as a means of self-defence. The males pursue females that they wish to mate with and at that time will also chase off other males that may be in competition.
The name ‘carpenter bee’ is due to their tunnelling into dead wood in order to lay their eggs; the female uses her mandibles to chew into the wood, creating tunnels into which she will lay up to 15 eggs. Each egg will be provided with pollen on which to eat when it hatches. In a natural habitat they will often choose a fallen tree trunk or a standing tree that has parts beginning to soften with decay.
But they’re happy to utilise the facilities we provide too – a friend had one queen that tunnelled into a wooden door on an outhouse and did quite a bit of damage, although being an old door it may well have been starting to decay beneath the paint, giving her easy access. I’ve also watched one take over much of the bamboo-tube accommodation provided by a bee-hotel. It was fascinating to watch her squeeze herself in to the seemingly much-too-narrow tube.