Valley Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa varipuncta)

Posted June 18th, 2009 by John Callender

bee11

(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:

bee2

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. :-)

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

  1. [...] a guinea pig and tropical fish. I consider myself especially lucky to have one day seen a male Valley Carpenter bee, which shone like bright gold in the morning sun: Valley Carpenter bee, photo attributed to Matthew [...]

  2. Diana says:

    Just saw this giant golden furry bumble bee in my yard patrolling a rose bush.
    It kind of reminded me of a miniature flying hamster.
    Thank you for posting info and picture so I know what it really is!

  3. jon and jorge hammond says:

    Thanks so much for the spectacular photo of that furry flying giant. We found one but had trouble keying it out in our numerous lame field guides. What a beauty! Why would anyone omit such an extraordinary creature?

  4. Mia Bunn says:

    I too have always been intrigued by theese mysterious secretive bees. Ive seen the golden ones very rarely. But when I do, I cant stop starring at them. I just love carpenter bees. I used to call them bumble bees.

  5. Susan Guy says:

    The above photo is spectacular…it MUST be the same fellow that was visiting my garden here in Redwood City, CA today hoping to find a virgin queen that could be nesting in my back patio cover. This was my first opportunity to observe the male. He was amazing. A gentle giant! We have had the large black carpenter bee (I call them wood bees.) in our patio cover for about 5 years now. I love all the bees but these are special.

  6. Jack Marling says:

    We made several lovely closeup images of the giant gold Valley Carpenter bee. We are in Livermore and it was very busy in our elephant garlic blooms, along with a black Carpenter bee. Where shall I send an image?

  7. Leslie says:

    Thanks so much for the picture. I saw one of these for the first time, and like you, it faced me and seem to be very aware of me, and just seem to stare at me and would do the same things as you described…flew in kind of a very small pattern hanging out near some flowers, and watched me like I watch it…I went into my house , got my camera and started to take a picture, but he got camera shy and flew away…he was beautiful, and a friendly guy…wish I had gotten a picture, but at least I know what he is now…thanks again

  8. April says:

    Just seen this monster out in front of my work place, buzzing around some rose bushes. He never did stop. In my 62 years I have never see a bee like this. He was beautiful.

  9. Phoebe says:

    I think I saw this bee yesterday in Sacramento, CA. It was flying around a bush, but never actually landed on any of the flowers. I managed to get a little video of it. Obviously I couldn’t get too close, but if you make it full screen you can see it better: http://vimeo.com/40782946.

    I did a Google image search when I got home and found your site, so I linked to this page in my video description.

  10. John Callender says:

    Neat video! Yes, I think that’s probably what you’ve got there. That “hover, move, hover, move, etc.” behavior is what I’m familiar with from watching them.

    Thanks for sharing the video.

  11. Christina rose says:

    Have had two of these guys flying around one of my roses…never realized how rare they are. They have been patrolling the same rose bush for a week now…i was wondering what they were up to now I know : )

  12. Cheri says:

    Wow these boys are big. I have six of them on my front yard I tried to get a picture but he freaked me out when he stared me down. Gave me Goose bumps and the shivers!!

  13. Al Nonymous says:

    I saw the female carpenter bee buzzing around my squash plants here in West Sacramento, CA – dark dark blue/black and shiny, seems to be at least twice and maybe three times the size of a typical bumble bee, just massive. The female looks almost more like a huge flying beetle rather than a fuzzy bee.

  14. fChrichtonBlackxm says:

    Good data, quite a few thank you to the author.

  15. Lisa says:

    I have these in my front yard every year because I have left a downed tree trunk laying in my yard for my kids to climb on (in Sunnyvale). They have drilled their holes, and lay eggs in them. So each spring the new ones emerge. They’re beautiful! I usually have 2 golden ones flying around my garden at the same time in the spring.

  16. Jette says:

    I was at Happy Hollow Park in San Jose and saw a cluster of them around a flowering bush. I came home and asked my wife if she’s ever seen a large fuzzy yellow bee the size of a carpenter bee. She hadn’t and so my search lead me to you. Thank you for the information.

  17. Angela says:

    We have a very large nesting of these bees in the deck built over our porch. We have watched the gold ones and the black ones going in and out of the holes the last month or so, but tonight, at least 30 of the black ones with yellow spots swarmed the window under the porch. I think they were going for the light trying to get into the house, but very scary. Why would the females swarm the lights and fight over getting into the holes all of the sudden? This was the first night its happened.

  18. Sandra says:

    Just saw one of these in our vegetable garden in Escalon. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a golden Carpenter Bee. Beautiful bee! Watched it for several minutes as it hovered and flew about the tomato plants. I frequently see the black/yellow bees (used to call them bumble bees when I was a child) so very pleased to have found your blog. Now I know the “real” name of the bumble bee and have more info on that beautiful golden bee.

  19. Steve Southard says:

    Just saw one today collecting polen from my Mexican Sage bush in San Jose. Ran and grabbed my camera and got some good shots. Was going crazy on the web trying to ID it and finally found this page. Love it! Here are the pictures I took.
    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10201052473570955.1073741828.1141418763&type=1

  20. Megan says:

    So I feel like the worst person on the planet. One of these just flew into my house and, having never seen it before, I freaked out and stepped on it. I am SO SO SO SO SO SO SO SO SORRY! It was quite beautiful after I actually looked at it though.

  21. Jnichols says:

    I have a huge part of a fruit tree that appears to be th nest not sure what to do but I have pics of these little nuggets outside thier holes

  22. Jnichols says:

    We are in yuba city ca

  23. Pam says:

    Thank you for all of this! I had a big fat golden guy in my backyard & he hovered a little above my eye level and stared me down. I love all insects (ok since termites eat my house, I’m not a big fan, but they’re pretty fascinating too) but this is the cutest bee I’ve seen! Just as cute as a Woolly Bear caterpillar!!! And what a face!!!

  24. Dave says:

    I saw one of these bees in my front yard a few days ago. It was kind of hovering around a small Japanese maple we have. It was weird watching it hover for a few seconds then turn and hover again doing like a 360 degree recon or something. It finally flew away after about 2 minutes. Then yesterday my wife spotted one just sitting on a small fern in my front yard, I’m assuming it was the same one. She freaked out a little, it was so big she thought it was a crab or something lol. It was very docile so i caught it in a glass jar so my kids could see it more closely. We looked at it for a few minutes then let it go on a small shrub. We are in Lodi.

  25. Yolanda says:

    I just saw one of these in my back yard. Strange for bees to be about in November but it’s there. it’s a beautiful day and the sun is shining. We were doing a bit of grilling and it chased the kids inside. Well, me too….lol. Never seen such a big bee.

    I swatted it away a few times but it has no fear. We have no flowers, but it’s hovering around our Meyer Lemon tree.

  26. Chad says:

    I just saw one of these in Santa Barbara. It was doing the same thing, patrolling madly around a bush. Thanks for the information!

  27. David says:

    Just spotted a male carpenter bee in San Carlos. It’s a warm day, almost 80 degrees. He spent at least 5 minutes in the late afternoon sun hovering around our crape myrtle tree that is just now sprouting small red-tipped green leaves. Stood close enough to see his amazing green eyes. He must be the twin of the one in the image above. In the 5 minutes plus that I watched he never landed. It’s the only bee I have ever observed to spend more than about 30 seconds in the air without landing at least for a moment.

  28. Jack says:

    I get about eight or ten at a time around my blossoming cherry trees. They are a bit intimidating and occasionally bump into me.

  29. Tory says:

    Found an awesome fellow in our garden today. He was just flying around checking out things. As the Author posted, it would stop in front of me, and decide I was actually not very interesting and go on to his lapping of our bushes, stopping a few times, again to see if I had become more interesting (I hadn’t). My son was freaked out, but I can say this bee was quite soothing, compared to his smaller nastier counterparts (I know they have their functions, we need them,but not a fan of all the stings in the summer as they continue to come to our pool for cool down)..

    This guy certainly was a gentle giant among the Bee’s, what a neat looking insect! I could almost here him singing “I’m bringing home a baby bumble bee, won’t my momma feel so proud of meeeee!!” :) hahahaah

  30. Lin says:

    I heart the loudest buzz and happened to have my binoculars handy. Quickly spotted this lone golden, fuzzy “bumble” type bee and couldn’t believe it. I’ve lived here (Walnut Creek) in the same place for over 40 years and have never seen this guy! I was thrilled to read the info and everyone’s comments. I identified female Carpenter bees near the same spot last spring…near my Western Redbud and a blooming suculent (Australian native) This guy obviously knows where his best chances for the females are (although I haven’t seen the females this year) Good luck, Goldie!

  31. Janet says:

    I have 4 of these bees (which I have just learned are big, yellow furry male valley carpenter bees), swooping around our 6 Sangiovese grapevines in the backyard, occasionally landing on them. I was going to do some weeding nearby, but I’m intimidated by the way they stare at me!

  32. Diana says:

    I just came in from my vegetable/herb garden after watching one of these beautiful bees hovering for about ten minutes around a large sage plant in full bloom with purple flowers. I had never noticed one of these before here in the Rose Garden area of San Jose. The bush was full of honeybees and what looked like some wasps all going about their work; I didn’t see any black carpenter bees this time, but there are usually some in this area–they seem to like the poppies that surround the herbs. thank you so much for solving the mystery of what kind of bee this was and what he was doing. I couldn’t figure out why he never landed and just kept circling. Amazing what you can learn on an iPad by searching for “large gold colored fuzzy bee”!

  33. Phyllis says:

    Spotted this very golden furred and inquisitive bee several times this week in Granite Bay hovering in a small native blue oak. So delighted that others have spotted and ID’d him! Have seen the sizable black females every summer drilling into our wooden tool shed rafters.

  34. Laura says:

    I have several of these in my backyard now in Sacramento, all the black females, have not seen the golden male. They seem to really love the salvia I have I. The backyard. They are also around the heuchera that is in bloom and the roses. With all these females you would think there would be a male? I don’t use pesticides, except for Sluggo in the vegetable garden.

  35. lisa says:

    My office overlooks a small garden of flowers where many hummingbirds come to feed. I usually watch them in the early afternoon. It’s a nice break from the grind. Lately I have seen this giant “bee” hovering as described above, never landing. It goes away, comes back, repeats. I presume it’s the same fellow. I cant tell its color because its shady much of the day, but it looks darker than the pics posted. The outside of our building is mirrored-glass so it almost looks like it is looking at itself in the reflection. Who knows…

  36. jeffries says:

    Was out watering in my backyard- Elk Grove CA and had the opportunity to watch this beautiful golden guy. I have quite a few females who hang around the lavender but this is the first time I have seen a male. It was a shock needless to say. The coloring is such a soft lovely color. I am glad to have had the opportunity.

  37. LightStyle0o says:

    We call the females that frequent our garden “Tobi.” It’s quite a sight to see such jumbo bees land on tiny cilantro flowers. They land & the whole flower bushel droops several inches downward. They also pollinate my hollyhocks. Nice post. Thanks for the confirmation that they are in fact wood/ carpenter bees.

    http://nowphoto.wix.com/view

Leave a Reply