Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov might have feted the Bumblebee in music but it is the domestic life of the Carpenter Bee that inspires a fitting paean. How about one by the Carpenters?
My wife and I had seen the Carpenter Bee buzz past us as we stole a furtive smoke on the balcony, but we never imagined that it lived there. Until, with a menacing hum of blurry wings, the walnut-sized insect drove our little daughter back into the house in a frenzy of sheer terror.
Of our two balconies, the one adjoining the bedroom is narrower and shaded most of the time by a bamboo chik curtain. For many days we had noticed a trail of fine, powdery wood dust, along with enigmatic yellow stains that stippled the floor. What might they be, we wondered.
Slowly, the curtain lifted on our little mystery.
It appeared that the bee, true to nature, favoured the circular hole of the bamboo poles that anchored the curtain. Several times during the day, we’d see it approach the hole at the far end, landing gear at the ready. Even when the curtain was lowered, the metallic blue-black flying machine would have no trouble locating it.
Now, it helps to know that the Carpenter Bee, despite its appearance, is not the same as the Bumblebee. The latter insect is social and lives in colonies but our Carpenter Bee maintains a nuclear family. Also, the Bumblebee’s hairy abdomen sets it apart from the smooth, shiny bottom-parts of the Carpenter.
My research leads me to believe that it’s the male we mostly saw as he returned from foraging to check on his mate. Also, it was heartening to know that despite its menacing appearance, the Carpenter Bee was not given to stinging. Only the female is known to sting, and only in the rarest cases — when handled.
That said, the bees can appear to be malicious. Being territorial, they will charge at your face or circle your head if approached. Arm yourself with the knowledge that they are stingless.
Several times a day the male bee would pay visit to the hole. At that time, to be honest, we hadn’t quite sexed the bee; it was intriguing enough that it chose to disappear into the hole. I had been warned earlier that Carpenter Bees eat wood — I later learned that was wrong. The bees only nest in the hollows though they excavate with the grain to make themselves more comfortable with successive nest-building. Over time, their industriousness can weaken the wood or the bamboo pole, in this case. So that explained the fine, powdery dust.
Now what about the yellow stains?
As we feared, it was bee excreta. Blame the young buzzers for that. Apparently, it is they who do take the bulk of the dump. With a little help from the parents. The stains can be very stubborn and, bound together with the sawdust, they can be very tough to get rid of. For this reason, carpenter bees are considered pests. I’ve frequently turned away good practical advice to paint or varnish these chik curtains. Live and let live.
But enough of all the negative propaganda. What interested me was the extraordinary tenderness of the bee’s love life. I had seen the male and female circle each other and perform a fascinating aerial waltz – step for step, move for move, flourish for flourish. Unfortunately, all of that was too quick for my camera. What I did capture was his return to the nest after the female had laid her eggs.
The male arrived at the nest and entered gingerly. Then I saw him back out, abdomen first. As he waited, the female emerged at the mouth of the nest. He produced a drop of liquid in his jaws and proffered it to her; she accepted it.
Was that water? Or nectar? Or some hormone-laden potion? I had no clue.
They remained at the mouth of the nest, their own mouths touching, their antennae nuzzling, exploring each other with their palps. It was a Mills & Boon interlude all the way. And I, shameless voyeur, looked on.
Eventually, still lip-locked, he bade her leave the shelter of the nest. She tumbled out, her wings beginning to rustle with the anticipation of flight. They circled, still clinging to the matting of the curtain.
And then, as I watched, the bees circled together again — the first step of their charming aerobatic waltz — and spun away together into the brilliant blue sky.
Watching love bloom like that always cranks up the gramophone of my mind. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov composed the orchestral interlude The Flight of the Bumblebee
for his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan
. What song would be apt for the domesticated Carpenter Bee husband who logs his flying hours looking for a place to hide his love away? True to the moment, my memory yearned for an old ditty by — no prizes for guessing — the Carpenters:
I’ve got to find a place to hideaway
Far from the shadows of my mind
Sunlight and laughter, love ever after
For how I long to find a place to hideaway