Valley Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa varipuncta)

Posted June 18th, 2009 by John Callender

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(Wikipedia image by Matthew Field.)

I’ve noticed this bee several times over the past few years: gigantic (bumblebee-sized or bigger), a beautiful golden color all over, with a habit of hovering for minutes at a time, pausing a few seconds in one place, moving a few feet, hovering again, and repeating, in a circuit that causes it to cruise a limited area over and over. Every time I’ve seen it engaged in this “hover patrol” it has been near some flowers being visited by ordinary honeybees, but I’ve never seen the giant golden bee actually land. I might be reading too much into it, but I get the impression that the bee is aware of me; it seems to face me and check me out, then decides I’m uninteresting and moves on.

I’ve seen this bee in our front yard in Carp, and outside the office building where I work in Santa Monica. (I’ve mentioned my ridiculously long commute, right?) Last Sunday William and I watched one patrolling outside some condos on Sandyland Road, as we walked from the State Beach campground (where we spent the night Sunday night) to the marsh and back.

I asked William what he thought the bee was doing. What’s up with that ceaseless patrol? It has to have a reason, I argued. The bee wouldn’t devote all that energy to the behavior unless there was some point to it.

I’ve tried to google for information about the bee before, without success. Today I tried again, and hit the jackpot.

The bee is the Valley carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta. I’m used to seeing the female patrolling the eaves of houses and other wooden structures, looking for good spots to make a nest hole, and I knew that big black bee was a carpenter bee, but I never realized that this big golden bee was the male of the same species. An article from the UC Davis Department of Entomology quotes entomologist Lynn Kimsey as follows:

Carpenter bees, measuring about an inch long, are the largest bees in California. Their eggs are the largest of all insect eggs. The Valley carpenter bee egg can be 15mm long.

The males are territorial, Kimsey said, and can be quite aggressive. They hover and lie in wait for passing females.

“Female carpenter bees sting, but the males don’t have that apparatus,” Kimsey said. “You can pick up the fuzzy males and they won’t sting you.”

User INaturalist at bugguide.net posted this great image of the bee:

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INaturalist wrote:

These big chubby guys come out in the spring and fly around in the willows where Coyote Creek flows into the percolation ponds. In Sunnyvale I find them in the Baccharis at the WPC ponds. They have a very short flight season — a couple of weeks and they’re gone. The females are black and yellow. This one is a drone — presumably its only function is to mate, so what is it doing patrolling? Waiting for a receptive virgin queen to emerge?

I think INaturalist’s speculation is probably right: The bee is on the lookout for females, and is patrolling a territory he’s staked out that seems likely to attract them.

So: Another mystery solved. :-)

95 Responses to “Valley Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa varipuncta)”

  1. large maple tree not vehicle

  2. Leticia Zavala says:

    Saw one of these yesterday. Hovering about over the Chile de Arbol and Chile de Habanero in our front yard. Quite a site to see these golden handsome beauties! I get a kick out of seeing them when I do spot one. They are hilarious to me in their natural form/shape and can fly. A little jealous here but its ok. Chiming in from an old neighborhood in North East Los Angeles, Mount Washington. A sweet moment to be had and enjoyed.

  3. Carol Solid says:

    Today , April 30, 2016, we had one of these bees in Fair Oaks Ca at Sunset and Della Robia Court. This guy is HUGE.

  4. Rosemary A Dixon says:

    We have these in our garden at the moment, they are so docile and cute. I call them teddy bear bees, my kids got to hold one yesterday before letting him climb onto the Mexican Sage. Such beauties!!

  5. Dorothy H says:

    Just saw this bee for the first time circling a ceanothus. Very impressive! I’ve seen the black carpenter bees many times in the last few years but never this golden one.

  6. Eric Culver says:

    On 5/31/16 I saw one sitting on an onion flower in my garden. What a wonderful bumblebee !

  7. John Cunningham says:

    We saw one here in San Lorenzo, California…

    My neighbor was smoking weed in his garden when he heard a buzz in, and behind his head; turning he watched this same large bumblebee doing the same dance about the flowers. Then he noted that there were at least 5,or 6 others buzzing about.

    We are in northern California, and i was wondering if this bee migrates, or has moved into a new range because of average temperature increases over the last few years?

  8. Jude Trento says:

    Saw one here today in Chico, CA. Big, fat, beautiful bee!

  9. Pat Padrnos says:

    Saw my first one today 5/10/2017. Could not believe it!! It kept hovering around me. I was so excited!! Beautiful bee and was so happy for the experience.

  10. Adriana Milligan says:

    We just had one of these beautiful golden fuzzy bees fly into our front yard for the very first time and wow!!! what an interesting bee! He was actually quite observant stopping to hover and peer at my husband as my husband held still to ge4 a good look at him. He wasnt aggressive at all just flew around a flower bush that had black female bumble bees flying around it. We live in San Luis Obispo county and I’ve never seen a bee like this before.

  11. Pat Padrnos says:

    I posted a comment yesterday about my experience with this incredible bee – but forgot to mention my location in case anyone is trying to keep track of where they are – Waterford CA. I did not know they were the males to the female carpenter bees. I have had those in my yard for many years and have watched them drilling holes in various places on my home. So look forward to seeing another one.

  12. Dawn says:

    Just saw one in my front yard here in Livermore. Tried to take photos but he was interested in the pollen – and in one of the female carpenter bees. He is fascinated by the butterfly brush and the purple sage we have planted – first time I’ve seen the male of the species!

  13. John O. says:

    Saw one in Ordbend, Glenn County, for the last few days and decided to investigate. I think the bee I saw is the male carpenter bee.

  14. Jesse Goodfellow says:

    I live in western Washington, and found one of these buzzing in my Lavender plant in the front yard. I took some pictures so that I could try to match it up with something on the internet. As near as I can tell, it is a Valley Carpenter Bee. I think he’s a little out of his normal range though. Has anyone else seen them this far north?

  15. Sara says:

    I found one of these bees dead right off of the side of my driveway in Long Island, New York. I did a lot of research and I’m absolutely sure that it is a valley carpenter bee. I’m just wondering if anyone has heard of any other cases of this bee in NY or was this a case of a bee hitching a ride in the wrong box…

  16. John Callender says:

    I’m not an insect expert, so I can’t offer much help. In checking on bugguide.net I don’t see any reports of it from east of Texas, though I do notice that there’s a closely related bee, Xylocopa micans, the Southern Carpenter Bee, that gets as far north as Virginia. It certainly seems possible, too, that a Valley Carpenter Bee could have been transported there somehow.

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

  17. Dawn says:

    I saw one of these bees yesterday skulking around a disabled vehicle, it was a female I’m assuming since it was all black. Scared me quite a bit having never seen one before and not knowing what it was. I did think it was really beautiful though. I was around a bunch of black widow webs I hope it did not get caught, I highly doubt it though due to its enormous size.

    Lancaster, California

  18. Ann M Gahagen says:

    Location is Redwood City, CA. Female carpenter bees visit our salvias daily, but saw two yellow male Valley Carpenter Bees in spring of 2017 and one in 2016.

  19. Byron Rammbock says:

    Never in my life have I seen one these bees and I just found one outside on my washer looks like it’s hurt or dying feel bad it thinks that I want to hurt it ,it just sits there staring at me doesn’t move till I get close too it .hope it feels better and moves on :(

  20. James Gonzalez says:

    Saw one of these today, 12/16/17, in Fairfield! Very cool bee, I’ve never seen one before in my life!

  21. Margery Nagel says:

    Quite by chance, found one these beautiful drones on 3/8/18 in my front yard in Elk Grove, CA. I had never seen or heard of it before.

  22. Joshua Frazier says:

    There is one hovering in front of me as I type. I’m sitting in my car at work waiting to start my shift and I thought, “what is that?” Glad I looked it up and I see others have had the same curiousity. Now I know!

  23. Michael Gerdts says:

    Found one of these beauties motionless on a tree limb laying on the ground. It seemed to move it’s legs and antenna only when we were around, then died about 4 days later.

    My first sighting ,,, the golden color with beautiful green eyes will be remembered forever. Any information on their lifespan?

  24. James sanchez says:

    Found one Along the sidewalk as I was leaving work in Morgan Hill California4/23/18. Looks like it was almost dead only antennas and legs moving. First time I’ve ever seen one this big. Not sure if the info I looked up is correct but says it is a Carpender bee and it makes its home in wood mostly telephone poles .

  25. Cody Estela says:

    Found one in the middle of my street. His wings look a bit messed up so I pickes him up with a stick (didn’t know it doesn’t have a stinger) and placed him on a nearby tree. He’s been sitting in the same spot for over 5 hours.

  26. Amy says:

    I am in Northern California, Martinez
    My husband and I are in our 40’s and saw this carpenter bee for the first time ever hovering around a flowered hummingbird bush. It didn’t seem to be afraid of me. I got a few pictures. We are just in the tail end of spring. I noticed some black bumblebees present in the last few days as well, which we’ve seen over the years.

  27. Carol S says:

    I saw one of these big fellows 2 days ago hovering around my hummingbird feeders. What a delight to know what it is. Absolutely beautiful. I’m in Studio City, CA.

  28. detective T says:

    Have seen same fuzzy boy hovering over a dustyold oleander every afternoon while hand watering 20 newly planted salvias on a shadey slope at the top of my yard…close to undeveloped chapparel at 1570 feet top of altadena california. pays me no attention as there are numerous young females enjoying all the new flowering salvia. thanks to this site for quickly answering my curiosity too. never seen one before this year.

  29. Roger Cain says:

    We were at a Best Western in Chino, Calif for the annual air show last May sitting at the swimming pool when we found one of these males on patrol. Always having an interest in bugs, it was one I wasn’t familiar with. Your first paragragh is a perfect description of this bee actions, and I snapped a few terrible cell phone shots. Once home, my buddy checked in with his son who’s taking entomology at UC Davis and he identified it for us. Very cool critter, hope to see one again next May, 2019.

  30. Brent Malan says:

    Saw one 15 minutes ago in and around my hibiscus in Rancho Cucamonga. Our Eastern Redbud is blooming, actually, blooms are already turning to leaves. Black bumblebees visit our tree every year while the tree is blooming but this is the first time I have seen this beautiful “golden bumblebee. ” I took some videos so my wife can see when she gets home.

  31. Tina Price says:

    I just saw one in my front yard hovering about a large Jade Plant. I googled and I am so glad I found this site. I am in Southern California San Fernando Valley. I just thought it was such a beautiful thing. I hope he finds what he’s looking for. I love the bees.

  32. marsh says:

    I saw one of these today in the garden. he just hovered above eye height and looked me in the eye for a minute. Not aggressive at all. He was enjoying the blooming citrus trees. I had to find out what he was. he was big and brown and fuzzy.

  33. Ian says:

    I recorded on my phone and with my 4K camera one of these golden babehs hovering around my flower hedges here in Los Angeles in Silverlake, yesterday. I feel like I found a rare mythical creature and feel very lucky!

  34. roboZ says:

    every April spring here in san jose, ca, just after my blue moon wisteria vine blooms the regular black bumblebees arrive en masse to enjoy it’s flowers. About 2 weeks later the golden boys arrive, looking – looking – looking …. who’s that guy, nope, not my species!

  35. Jackie Cartier says:

    Just saw our first one here in Carmichael. Hovering around some cut limbs from our fruitless mulberry tree. So pretty.

  36. CarrieM says:

    I just saw one of these guys in my yard here, in San Jose. I have seen the black ones many times before but never seen a golden one until today. I had to look it up to find out what it was. Very beautiful

  37. Becki B says:

    I saw one today in Chico, CA. I was out pulling some really tall weeds and he was doing the “patrol” you described around one of them. I watched for about ten minutes, then went to fetch my phone to take video, and when I got back and started recording him, he flew away. So I continued pulling the tall weeds, and he came back looking for “his,” which I had already pulled. I felt horrible! If I’d have known he’d be back I would have left it! I hope he wasn’t too attached to that spot and finds somewhere even better. What do you think? Did I ruin his chances of finding some females?

  38. Karin K says:

    I have these glorious guys in my backyard Meadow Habitat. The first one I saw was sitting on the hollyhock flower. Yesterday I saw one among the white sage blossoms. I thought they were the black ones covered with pollen. Silly me!

  39. Connie says:

    Saw this unusual gold bumblebee in Las Vegas, flying from one shrub to another shrub. I have never seen one before and was trying to get a picture but he was too fast for me. This is the second day he has been here, and I feel very fortunate to have seen him! I had no idea what it was until I looked on this website.

  40. Diana says:

    Just saw one of these golden beauties for the first time today. My family was in the backyard enjoying an early dinner, when hearing a strong buzz, turned around and saw one hovering near us. My kids got a kick but quickly got scared seeing it seemed to be hovering close. Was enough to send us packing and finish are dinner indoors.

  41. Andrew Pudvan says:

    In Claremont CA and my daughter caught a picture of one in our flowers this morning. With all the news about these giant murder wasp she thought that is what it was. After a little research I found this article here. We get plenty of the black bumblebees for most of the year but this was a pleasant surprise.

  42. Monica says:

    My mother and I saw one in my backyard in San Diego today! He was hovering around my pink ivy geraniums. We leaned in to see the beautiful color better, then jumped back when a got a good view of his huge size! He was almost shimmering in the sunlight. I’d never seen one before and had to go look it up. In the process my daughter and I’d realized we’d seen a female last spring and had been freaked out. We’re so relieved to know it was simply a bee.

  43. Marcela says:

    I have seen these beautiful golden carpenter bees in my front yard. They love my butterfly garden and are very large and lovely in the sunlight.
    We live in northern California more specific in the SF Bay Area.
    April 2020

  44. Marie says:

    Saw two golden bees enjoying my lavender this morning. Usually the black carpenter bees patrol this bush though recently honey bees have worked this plant. Then voila! Today these golden beauties appeared. Gorgeous and large. A first for me to enjoy.

  45. Russell says:

    I saw my first ever watering my garden. Lots of field thistle next to my garden and it was flowering. A big golden bumble bee was right in front of me. Now I know what it is.

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