Carpenter bees (the genus Xylocopa in the subfamily Xylocopinae) are large bees distributed worldwide. Some 500 species of carpenter bees are in the 31 subgenera. Their common name is because nearly all species build their nests in burrows in dead wood, bamboo, or structural timbers (except those in the subgenus Proxylocopa, which nest in the ground). Members of the related tribe Ceratinini are sometimes referred to as “small carpenter bees”.
The genus was described by French entomologist Pierre André Latreille in 1802. The name is derived from the Ancient Greek xylokopos/ξῦλοκὀπος “wood-cutter”. Species in this enormous genus are often nearly impossible to distinguish from one another taxonomically, the majority of species being all-black, or primarily black with some yellow pubescence, differing only by subtle morphological features, and details of the male genitalia. In India, for example, any all-black species of Xylocopa is referred to by the common name “bhanvra”, and reports and sightings of bhanvra are commonly misattributed to a European species, Xylocopa violacea; however, this species is found only in the northern regions of Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab, and most sightings, especially elsewhere in India, refer to any of roughly 15 other common black Xylocopa in the region, such as X. nasalis, X. tenuiscapa, or X. tranquebarorum.
In several species, the females live alongside their own daughters or sisters, creating a small social group. They use wood bits to form partitions between the cells in the nest. A few species bore holes in wood dwellings. Since the tunnels are near the surface, structural damage is generally minor or nonexistent.
Carpenter bees can be important pollinators on open-faced flowers, even obligate pollinators on some, such as the maypop (Passiflora incarnata), though many species are also known to “rob” nectar by slitting the sides of flowers with deep corollas.
In the United States, two eastern species, Xylocopa virginica and Xylocopa micans, are found, and three other species are primarily western in distribution, Xylocopa varipuncta, Xylocopa tabaniformis orpifex and Xylocopa californica. X. virginica is by far the more widely distributed species. Some are often mistaken for bumblebee species, as they can be similar in size and coloration, though most carpenter bees have a shiny abdomen, while in bumblebees the abdomen is completely covered with dense hair. Males of some species have a white or yellow face, where the females do not; males also often have much larger eyes than the females, which relates to their mating behavior. Male bees are often seen hovering near nests, and will approach nearby animals. However, males are harmless, since they do not have a stinger. Female carpenter bees are capable of stinging, but they are docile and rarely sting unless caught in the hand or otherwise directly provoked.
Many Old World carpenter bees have a special pouch-like structure on the inside of their first metasomal tergite called the acarinarium where certain mites (Dinogamasus species) reside as commensals. The exact nature of the relationship is not fully understood, though in other bees that carry mites, they are beneficial, feeding either on fungi in the nest, or on other, harmful mites.