How to Tell the Difference Between a Bumblebee and a Carpenter Bee

Carpenter bee and Carder Bumblebee on a Sunflower
A carpenter bee and carder bumblebee. Monique Berger / Getty Images

Both bumblebees and carpenter bees frequent flowers for nectar, and both kinds of bees become active as soon as the weather starts to warm up in the spring. Because both bumblebees and carpenter bees are large and share similar markings, it's easy to mistake one bee for the other. 

All Bees Are Useful

Both bumblebees and carpenter bees are beneficial insects, native pollinators that are vital to a healthy ecosystem.

But occasionally, they nest in places that are a little too close for comfort, and you might be considering taking steps to control or eliminate them. Before you attempt any pest control measures, you need to identify the problem insect correctly and understand its life cycle and natural history. Although they look alike and inhabit the same areas, bumblebees and carpenter bees have very different habits.

Bumblebee Characteristics

Bumblebees (genus Bombus) are social insects, like honeybees. They live in colonies and almost always nest in the ground, often in abandoned rodent burrows. The bumblebee queen survives the winter alone and rears her first brood in early spring to establish a new colony. Although generally not aggressive, bumblebees will protect their nest if threatened, so a nest in a high foot traffic area of the yard might be a safety concern.

Carpenter Bee Characteristics

Large carpenter bees (genus Xylocopa) are solitary insects (although a few species are considered semi-social).

Female carpenter bees excavate nests in wood, using their strong jaws to chew holes into decks, porches, and other wood structures. They're unlikely to sting unless provoked. Male carpenter bees are quite territorial and will attempt to defend their turf by flying directly at you and buzzing loudly.

Males can't sting, so don't let this behavior frighten you.

So, What's the Difference?

So how do you tell the difference between a bumblebee and a carpenter bee? The easiest way to differentiate them is to look at the bee's abdomen. Bumblebees have hairy abdomens. A carpenter bee's abdomen is mostly bald, and will look smooth and shiny.

 BumblebeeCarpenter Bee
AbdomenHairyMostly bald, shiny, black
NestIn the groundTunnel into wood
Pollen BasketsYesNo
CommunitySocialSolitary, some species semi-social
GenusBombusXylocopa

 

Sources

  • "Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America's Bees and Butterflies", Xerces Society Guide.
  • Carpenter Bees, by Mike Potter, Extension Entomologist. University of Kentucky Entomology Department website. Accessed online May 22, 2015