Bumblebees vs Carpenter Bees

Bumblebees vs Carpenter Bees

Bumblebees and carpenter bees have more in common than you might think. It’s not uncommon for people to confuse the two, especially since they look so alike. They do, however, have quite a few differences.

Appearance—Bumblebees vs Carpenter Bees

It’s no secret that bumblebees and carpenter bees share many features. It can be fairly tricky to distinguish them, even close up, without some knowledge or experience of what to look for.

Bumblebee Appearance

The best way to tell the difference between a bumblebee and a carpenter bee is to look at their body hair. Bumblebees have something called pile. This is, basically, fuzzy, soft hair covering their bodies.

top of bombus affinis bumblebee

The hair covers them entirely, giving them a soft, fluffy look. The pile, however, does also serve a purpose. During foraging, pollen can stick to the hair, helping the bumblebee bring more resources back to the nest.

Looking at the color differences, you’ll also see that the bumblebee has a more colorful body. Bumblebees sport the iconic bee colors of black and yellow stripes. This specific pattern is called aposematic coloration, which the bee uses as a defense toward predators, as it appears unedible.

Various species of bumblebees also have different colored tails. Tail appearances are usually divided into white-tailed, uniform, and red. White-tails can range in multiple shades of white, from off-white to yellowish, and are round in shape.

bumblebee on flower
CC Image courtesy of mattx27

Red-tailed bumblebees usually only sport a few variants of red, but their tails are pointy. The uniform tails are the same color as the rest of the bee which is generally a ginger tone. These “uniform” bees also don the pointed tail.

The last bumblebee feature I’ll mention is their proboscis. This resembles a tongue, and is located on the head of the bee. The bumblebee uses its proboscis to collect pollen and nectar.

bumblebee head and eyes
CC Image courtesy of littleboy09

Carpenter Bee Appearance

If you were to place the two species next to each other, you’d undoubtedly notice the size difference. Carpenter bees, in general, are larger than most bumblebees, reaching a length of a half-inch to 1 inch in length. Their size is probably also the most intimidating thing about this bee.

Carpenter bees also sport a coat of fur. The difference from the bumblebee is that the fur of the carpenter bee only covers their thorax. Their abdomen is relatively smooth and generally black or bluish in color.

carpenter bee

The fur on their thorax is not as thick as a bumblebee’s fur. It’s quite uniform in color, only ranging in a few shades from orange, yellow, through brown. What you may also notice is a black spot right at the center of the thorax.

What’s more, is that these bees have very fuzzy legs, whereas the bumblebee has smooth legs. The fuzziness of the carpenter bee’s legs is similar to the cuckoo bumblebee, which many argue is not a true Bombus.

The carpenter bee abdomen is also fairly large when compared to the bumblebee. It’s very thick and heavy looking, and you’ll likely notice the lack of stinger. Although female carpenter bees can sting, they don’t usually venture out of the nest.

Males, on the other hand, don’t have a stinger, and these are the most common to spot. Instead of stinging, they’ll use their loud buzz and size to intimidate potential intruders.

Behavior—Bumblebees vs Carpenter Bees

This is where it gets interesting. Bumblebees and carpenter bees lead completely different lives. One of them prefers to live alone, away from other bees, while the other depends on workers; let’s find out more.

Bumblebee Behavior

You may already know this, but bumblebees are eusocial, which means that they live together in colonies, which are ruled by a queen. Although bumblebees are social insects, their colonies aren’t as large as the honeybees’ colony.

A single bumblebee queen will rarely have more than a couple of hundred workers living in her nest. Sometimes she can have as little as 50 worker bees with her.

A typical bumblebee nest is divided by caste; there’s a queen, workers, and drones. The queen, who’s the founder, will mate after emerging from her cocoon, and then go into hibernation.

Once she wakes up, she finds a nesting place and takes her position on the throne. Her day is spent sitting in the middle of the nest, feeding on the honey produced by the workers.

bumblebee nest

The workers, or daughters, have different tasks, consisting of tending to the nest, queen, and brood, or outside foraging. The workers are very docile and aren’t likely to sting if you encounter them outdoors.

Carpenter Bee Behavior

Carpenter bees are known as solitary bees, meaning that they don’t live in colonies ruled by a queen. The female will find a mate and then set up a small nest inside some wood.

wood bee (carpenter) in nest

Because carpenter bees don’t live in colonies, the female tends to her own offspring. Her whole lifecycle is generally spent carving tunnels to lay her eggs and collecting pollen to feed her younglings.

At the front of her head, she has a pair of mandibles. These vibrate while she’s carving tunnels, allowing her to construct an impressive nest in less time.

The males spend their days hovering close to the entrance of the nest. They will scare off any intruders, either human, animal or insect. Fortunately, they can’t sting, but their size is intimidating.

Once the season ends, the male and female die, leaving behind their offspring, that are ready to hatch. These will feed on the leftover nectar and pollen before venturing out in spring, to continue the cycle.

Habitat—Bumblebees vs Carpenter Bees

Once more, these species show different preferences when it comes to their choice of habitat. Neither of them lives in beehives, so where can we expect to find them? Let’s see.

Bumblebee Habitat

Bumblebees prefer to live underground. The queen will usually look for abandoned burrows or moss, where she has all the needed supplies. Bumblebees aren’t great at building their own nests from scratch, so it’s essential that materials are close at hand.

bumble bee nest entrance hole
Bumblebee nest entrance

There are also some species of bumblebees who live above the ground. These types will usually nest in old birdhouses or in a tree hollow.

Carpenter Bee Habitat

Carpenter bees are the opposite of bumblebees when it comes to preferred habitat, too. They prefer to live in wood, where the female carves tunnels to host her eggs. As I said above, the female has mandibles, so she’s more than capable of building her own nest from scratch.

Unfortunately, carpenter bees won’t hesitate to build their nest in or near our homes. This often leads to costly damages to the woodwork.

Summary

Although bumblebees and carpenter bees are often mistaken for one another, as you have now seen, they have a fair amount of differences. Carpenter bees are larger and live a solitary life in wood, whereas the bumblebee generally lives in a colony underground, ruled by a queen.

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