a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France

They’re big, they’re black, they make a lot of noise but they’re shy


I have a fair number of carpenter bees visiting the garden.  In the spring they were in the Wisteria, then it was the Spanish Broom, now it is the Lavatera and Hollyhocks.

Carpenter in Lavatera

Because they are big, black and noisy, Carpenter bees are not considered as cute as the fluffy bumble bees.   They are big and clumsy and if you happen to find yourself in their flight path it can be startling.  More startling for the Carpenter than for you.  They are not aggressive and the male bee does not even have a sting.  The female does possess a stinger but it is rarely used.  It is hard to imagine that these insects are so shy.

Carpenter in Hollyhock

The Carpenter bee is not common in the UK, preferring warmer climates, so it is perhaps for that reason that it fascinates me but it can also frighten someone who is not accustomed to it.  I love the violet tinge the wings take in the sunshine and I chase it round the garden trying to take  photographs.  It is the most reticent of all the bees.  Despite the fact I could always find them in the Spanish Broom I could never get near enough to take a decent photograph.  It became a sort of game between the Carpenters and me.  I would approach from one side and they would go around the other.  I would be quiet so I am not sure whether they have got excellent eyesight or whether they could smell me.

Carpenter with pollen

They are good pollinators where the size of the flower allows them entry.  They are solitary bees, like bumble bees, and have nests where they will take back the pollen and nectar to feed the larvae so they need to collect the pollen for their young.

If the flower is too small for them to gain entry and the nectar too far away for their tongue to reach, they can “steal” the nectar by piercing a hole in the flower near the nectar source.  This is how they gather the nectar from the Wisteria, leaving the pollination to smaller insects.

Carpenter robbing nectar

This is exactly the way some bumble bees gather the nectar from Wisteria as short-tongued bumble bees cannot reach the nectar through the flower.  These holes are often re-used and the Carpenter bees might even help the bumble bees by making the Wisteria more accessible.

Bumble bee stealing nectar

The Wisteria in the spring becomes very ragged as the flower heads are perforated by the bees.

Pollinators have an important part to play in the environment and the carpenter bee is a welcome visitor to the garden.   I’m going to continue playing hide and seek with them trying to get close enough to get some more pictures.  Big and black they may be but I have been completely charmed by these gentle creatures.

Author: afrenchgarden

Born in Scotland I have lived in England, Iran, USA and Greece. The house and land was bought twelve years ago in fulfilment of the dream of living in France that my Francophile husband nurtured. We had spent frequent holidays in France touring the more northerly parts and enjoying the food, scenery, architecture and of course gardens. However, we felt that to retire in France and enjoy a more clement climate than we currently had in Aberdeen we would need to find somewhere south of the river Loire but not too south to make returning to visit the UK onerous. The year 2000 saw us buying our house and setting it up to receive us and the family on holidays. The garden was more a field and we were helped by my son to remove the fencing that had separated the previous owners’ goats, sheep and chickens. We did inherit some lovely old trees and decided to plant more fruit trees that would survive and mature with the minimum of care until we took up permanent residence. The move took place in 2006 and the love hate relation with the “garden” started. There was so much to do in the house that there was little energy left for the hard tasks in the garden. It was very much a slow process and a steep learning curve. Expenditures have been kept to a minimum. The majority of the plants have been cuttings and I try to gather seeds wherever I can. The fruit trees have all been bought but we have tender hearts and cannot resist the little unloved shrub at a discount price and take it as a matter of honour to nurse it back to health. This year I have launched my Blog hoping to reach out to other gardeners in other countries. My aim is to make a garden for people to enjoy, providing shady and sunny spots with plants that enjoy living in this area with its limestone based subsoil and low rainfall in a warm summer. Exchanging ideas and exploring mutual problems will enrich my experience trying to form my French garden.

22 thoughts on “They’re big, they’re black, they make a lot of noise but they’re shy

  1. Most Italians I know are terrified by these bees but I’ve found them to be just intent on collecting nector and don’t usually bother me in the garden; you’ve done well with your images, I haven’t manages to capture one yet. Christina


    • They can look pretty scary, I do worry that they get killed for looking like an insect Darth Vader. It makes me laugh when I am trying to get a photograph, they let me get to a certain distance then shift further away around the other side of the flower!


  2. They’re cute to me, even if they are big and noisy 🙂 You’ve got great pics of them.


  3. Amazing… I like the one covered with… not sure what it is called, but it help to pollinate.


    • It was covered with pollen. It collects the pollen as it uses the pollen and nectar to feed the young bees in their nest. The Carpenters make a nest in dead trees frequently where there is already a hole which they make bigger. You can see two types of pollen on one of the bees as he has visited more than one sort of flower.


  4. Terrific photos. I love the carpenter bees, they’re kind of clumsy and fun to watch.


  5. Great photos. I’ve only just stumbled across your blog … have you ever considered beekeeping?


    • It has always fascinated me and I follow several bee blogs as I find them very interesting. However, there seems such a lot to learn and it also seems like a lot of commitment time wise.


  6. Super shots all. You have done so well to get detail in these black bees. Nice exposure.


  7. Wonderful images ~ I’ll be looking out for them in the Touraine! Thank you so much for sharing.


  8. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve never seen those bees until I moved to my new flat (not too far from my old one but with more trees and flowers downstairs)… I love bumble bees and was never afraid of them since my father taught me that they don’t want to sting you, and will only do so if badly provoked, but because I’ve never saw this kind of bees I was so scared every time they entered my room! Anyway, thank you for showing me how gentle they are and ridding me of the fear of the unknown noisy black creature!


    • I’m so glad the post has been useful, now you can pass on your experience too. I have got fond off them over the years and look forward to seeing them on the Wisteria every year. At this time of year they seem to visit the other flowers in the garden more and be calmer. In spring they seem to be more frenetic and not look where they are going. Amelia


  9. Lots of these bees in our Garden (near Banbury UK) this evening! Never seen them before and concerned they might be aggressive because of the noise! Reassured by the helpful posts! Thx.


  10. What a great shot of the bumblebee ‘cheating the flower’ by piercing a hole near the source of nectar. I’ve seen them do it here, on comfrey blossoms, but never got a good shot of it.


  11. wonderful photos. I have seen three of these bees in Gorron Mayenne area of France – June 2017. One in the Garden and two just down the road in the village. Now I am aware of what they are and I think they impressive Janet


    • I’m so glad you like them. Their wings have a beautiful blue shimmer when the light strikes them but they can look pretty scary. They are not at all aggressive and I expect you found out how difficult it is too get close to them before they take flight and fly away. Amelia


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