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. :-)

69 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 :(

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