Tunneling for Daylight

All hail the miraculous, tenacious carpenter bee

Illustration by Matt Rota
Illustration by Matt Rota

My first mistake, which I make soon after arriving at my studio, is to confuse the insect resting on the doormat for the hornets swarming the broken light fixture above my door. The hornets have made a nest there and are flying in and out, navigating the splayed wires hanging from the lamp’s tubular neck, which is open to the elements. The hornets are what to worry about, even though they haven’t noticed me yet, not specifically. I am a peripheral disturbance, an odor that sends them swaying to an ancient choreography.

I’ve come for an artist residency in the rural Virginia Piedmont, east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, south of Charlottesville. The land was once a farm, and the buildings reflect that heritage. My writing studio is in a converted barn, built in the 1930s, that had once housed dairy cows. The concrete floor, now painted a glossy gray, had been sloped to accommodate drainage, and that idiosyncrasy was preserved in the renovation. Sometimes when I sit at the desk, writing under a bank of windows and looking out on a strip of lawn backed by towering, vine-covered Kentucky coffeetrees, I imagine a row of cows standing behind me, lowing urgently, awaiting their morning milking.

It is summer, and the region is experiencing a no-longer-truly-unusual heat wave; combined with the intense humidity, which has never been unusual here, this heat would be called sultry by some, oppressive by others. I turn on a fan and, despite the weather, open the screened windows, so that now and then a breeze ruffles the pages I’ve pinned to a wall-size corkboard.

At a residency, the artist’s habitat is arranged intentionally to aid immersion in the work of making art. Here, there are few interruptions, and that is the way I like it. There is the sound of the train as it passes under a bridge beyond the coffeetrees, its whistle quickly becoming part of the atmosphere of my days. There are the iridescent green June beetles, skimming along like drones, inches above the grass, searching for mates or a place to lay their eggs. And there are the bees.

If only, upon seeing the insect on the doormat, I’d thought bee rather than hornet. Only after I smash it and eject it do I take the time to notice that the hornets are blacker and narrower, whereas this insect looks like a giant bumblebee, with a sizable black abdomen that is shiny, not hairy. I realize that I have actually killed a carpenter bee. I recall the time I killed what I thought was a wasp that lit on my toddler’s stroller, only to realize too late that it was a dragonfly, and I’ll never forget the insect’s eyes, which for all I know always look stricken like that. When was the last time I’d looked into the eyes of a dragonfly?

I hope the bee was already dying as I moved on it. What else, I think, could explain the fact that it just sat—stood?—on the mat as I approached? Didn’t even twitch, as I brought down the unread New York Review of Books on its soft body.

Carpenter bees mate and lay their eggs in June. Their eggs are the largest to be discovered, so far, in the insect world. But that “so far” does a lot of work; too much about the insect world has yet to be discovered. Still, a 16.5-mm-long egg with a diameter of 3 mm—the largest carpenter bee egg on record—seems hard to beat.

The female will chew a perfectly round hole in untreated wood, which becomes the entrance to a tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, she packs a cell with pollen blended with nectar, “bee bread” for the hatchling. She lays a single egg and seals it up with wood pulp. Then she repeats the process, creating a series of cells, one behind the next, until the tunnel itself is sealed. Soon after laying the eggs and closing the tunnel, she will die.

Large carpenter bees belong to the genus Xylocopa, which comprises species with wings that are 20 mm or longer. The most common carpenter bee in Virginia is, aptly, Xylocopa virginica—the eastern carpenter bee. This is probably the one I’m seeing in my studio. But there is another, Xylocopa micans, the southern carpenter bee, which is listed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation as critically imperiled in the state, although the situation is not yet of broader concern. Unlike its cousin, X. micans tends to nest not in human structures but in natural ones, like dead tree branches. Although X. micans isn’t rare in other places, its nests are rarely seen; the last official description of such a nest that I know of appeared in research published in 1958.

Compared with the honeybee and the bumblebee, carpenter bees aren’t popular research subjects, even though they’re important pollinators. Like native bumblebees, they have the ability to “buzz pollinate” plants—to vibrate in a way that causes a plant to release more pollen; this makes them more efficient than the nonnative honeybee, which means that the plants they visit can produce more fruit. More than 20,000 flowering plants, including potatoes, tomatoes, cranberries, kiwis, and blueberries, are best suited to buzz pollination.

Only one native bee species exists in the Galapagos Islands, and it’s the most important pollinator there: the Galapagos carpenter bee, or X. darwinii, of course. No one is sure how it first arrived on those islands. It either came by accident, its nest inside floating driftwood, or it flew more than 600 miles from mainland South America. There is apparently a reasonable argument for the latter theory. My point is, carpenter bees are a tenacious lot.

The female’s first egg, laid all the way at the back of the tunnel, is the last to hatch; the bee must find its way out, passing through the open cells where all of her brothers and sisters have already hatched and made their way to their first summer blossom. Carpenter-bee tunnels as long as 10 feet have been reported. How is this possible? The bee makes her tunnel laterally, by digging straight in and then turning, say, along the inside of a baseboard, from where, each day, a newly hatched carpenter bee emerges. From under my desk near my toes, a bee appears as if conjured.

The new bees eat the food their mother left them—all they will ever know of her—and chew their way out into daylight, or so they think, but then they see me. Are you my mother? If so, I’m terrifying. I’m large. I come at them with waving arms. They head toward the fluorescent lights or insist on a window that’s shut. Their poor flying reminds me of my own, in dreams where I’m trying to escape. I’m weighed down; I fly too slowly, dip too low. The thing that’s chasing me will nearly catch up. Unlike me, the bees are going somewhere. Wrong way, I tell them. I attempt to usher them toward the open door. But they always try the window first. If they aren’t careful when I raise the screen, they’ll be crushed by the sash. I coax them: Come on, you can do this. You can figure it out. You know how to chew a perfectly round hole! As if the trick is to build their confidence. They eventually find their way, but I can’t rush them. This effort requires a kind of patience that I can’t summon up for anything else.

I am also sharing my studio with large carpenter ants and tiny house ants, an array of country spiders, anoles that slide underneath cinderblock walls and hide behind a downspout by the door, and a cluster of rabbits gathering in what I imagine to be a coffee klatch each morning, not to mention the frogs that serenade me while I work late into the night. I am writing a book about a meadow, and it begins to seem as if aspects of the story are coming to life around me. The bees moving from flower to flower inside my head are now flinging themselves at the walls of my studio.

The young carpenter bees don’t typically emerge until late summer, says the Internet. But this is early July, and here they are. The bees aren’t aware of the Internet, which is best, because what they’d find there are pages on pages of instructions for killing them. Like: block them up in the walls in winter, while they hibernate, and then they can’t escape when it’s time to lay their eggs. Imagine the bee’s surprise, its panic at finding itself trapped, unable to respond to its instinctive drive. How about, instead: finish your softwood, stain it, paint it, and keep it from rotting if you want to discourage the bees. Better yet, give them a couple of tree branches or logs to work with; leave the logs at the edge of your yard, and watch what happens.

When I’m long gone from this place, these new hatchlings passing through my office will overwinter in the tunnels where they were born, inside the walls, while a few inches away, other writers will sit, waiting for their still minds to wake, perhaps listening to the train rumble by invisibly every evening at 6:02, staring out the window at the clouds rolling through, at the rain, at the leafless black branches, at the dry brown vines, not knowing.

Next spring, these bees, now yearlings, will return to lay their eggs in the same place. I’m a transient, unlike the bees. I may not return to this room at this desk at this time next year, or ever. Of the next person who is the keeper of the room, of the bees’ wardrobe closet to a new world, I ask: help them transit. Don’t make my first mistake.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Whyman is the author of the forthcoming memoir  Bad Naturalist: One Woman’s Ecological Education on a Wild Virginia Mountaintop and a collection of linked stories, You May See a Stranger. Her fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, and The Hudson Review, among other publications.


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