Honey Bee Vs. Carpenter Bee – What’s The Difference?

A honey bee and carpenter bee on a white background

The honey bee and carpenter bee are both eco-friendly insects that do a fantastic job as pollinators. They are both from the Apidae family but side by side, each species is a mile apart. They differ in nesting habits, appearance, and virtually everything else. Let’s take a close look at their similarities and differences.

What is the difference between a carpenter bee and honey bee?

Honey bees are social insects that live in hives and produce honey. Carpenter bees are bigger and live on their own or in small families. They chew into wood to make their nests and are considered by some to be a nuisance. Carpenter bees don’t make honey but are excellent native bee pollinators.

Appearance

Honey bees typically have yellow and brown stripes with a fat body. Depending on their breed, they may vary in color and are covered in fuzz.

A honey bee measures ½ – 5/8 of an inch in length. This size is smaller than carpenter bees which are generally ¾ to 1 inch long. 

Carpenter bees have a shiny black abdomen free from hair. Their thorax varies by species and may be yellow, brown, white, black, or blue.

Closeup of a carpenter bee isolated.
Mason bees are a similar size to bumble bees.

Character traits

Some honey bee races are more docile than others. Caucasians and Buckfasts are mostly non-aggressive, although there are exceptions. At the other end of the scale, Africanized bees are highly aggressive. They will attack almost anything that moves.

The female honey bee has a barbed stinger that she may use if threatened. She will usually die afterward as it can’t be removed.

Male carpenter bees have a reputation for aggression, but their bark is worse than their bite. The male doesn’t even have a stinger, so they are just letting you know they know you’re there.

The female carpenter bee is capable of stinging multiple times as her stinger has no barb. But most of the time, carpenter bees are more interested in foraging and building their nests. Their size also means they don’t have many threats in the insect world.

Colony

Honey bee colonies grow big in the right conditions. With plenty of nearby foraging resources, their population may reach 60,000. They allocate roles, working together to prepare for winter. With sufficient honey and a big cluster of bees to huddle through the cold months, survival is more likely.

Cluster of honey bees on a frame
Honey bee colonies can grow rapidly.

Honey bees have a queen bee that can lay thousands of eggs daily. Female nurse bees assist with rearing the young until they can fend for themselves.

Carpenter bees don’t build large hives together. Instead, they live as solitary insects or in small family units. Newborn daughters may stay with their mother and nest together. 

Nest

The honey bee colony uses beeswax to build a hive. Female worker bees do the work while the queen oversees the process. They may live in the same home for years if foraging material is available and conditions are right.

When a hive of honey bees overcrowds, there is a good possibility they will swarm. Led by scouts, around half the bees, including the current queen, will leave and establish a new hive.

Carpenter bees create nests by boring their way into wood. They use their mandibles as a rasp and vibrate their bodies to make perfectly round tunnels. Each nest has one entrance, but they often have connected cells where the eggs are laid.

A collage of carpenter bees making nests
Carpenter bees are experts at boring.

Honey bees build up stores of honey and pollen. They stay in the hive during the cold winter and live off their stores.

Carpenter bees don’t store honey for winter. They hibernate in abandoned tunnels along with some pollen and nectar stores. Source from University of Kentucky.

Pollination

Thanks to their large numbers, honey bees are excellent pollinators. They collect pollen in baskets on their hind legs before returning it to the hive. Many trees, vegetables, and other plants rely on honey bees to survive. Hives can be moved to new areas, which makes them vital for the ecosystem’s survival.

Carpenter bees have smaller numbers, but they’re excellent pollinators. Like bumble bees, they are capable of buzz pollination. They position their thorax near the flower’s anthers and use their flight muscles to vibrate the pollen off the flower. They are essential in pollinating many vegetable varieties, tomatoes, eggplants, and other flowers. 

Be sure to also check out our comparison or honey bees and bumble bees.

Lifecycle

Honey bees begin their life as an egg. Thousands of eggs may be laid by the queen bee each day. She lays them in a brood comb cell. Nurse bees and the queen tend to the egg as it develops into a pupa and a larva. The bee takes 15-24 days to emerge from its cell.

Depending on the time of year, honey bees live for several weeks or up to 6 months in winter. The queen bee may live several years before she stops laying and gets replaced by a new queen.

Closeup of the honey bee
Honey bees take around 15-24 days to emerge from their cell.

Carpenter bees don’t have a queen bee. Each female lays her eggs in small cells she has drilled into the wood. A ball of pollen is left with the larvae to feed on. They will develop in a sealed enclosure for about six weeks before emerging as adults.

Female carpenter bees have a relatively long life expectancy of up to three years. They may lay 6-8 eggs in segmented chambers during this time. Drones have a shorter life expectancy of one year, dying soon after mating in spring.

Removal

If you’ve got an immense swarm of honey bees resting in a cluster nearby, they’ll likely move on within a day. They’re probably resting before moving on to their new home.

If the swarm is in a location where people may get too close, call a beekeeper to come and transport them to a hive. A local beekeeper can also remove honey bees building a nest on your property.

holding a frame packed with bees hard at work

Carpenter bees don’t build a big nest with lots of bees. However, they can make noise scraping away at wood, and you may not want your home damaged by them. The most humane way to keep them away is to use citrus spray. Apply it to any wooden parts of your house, porch furniture, and posts. They loathe the scent of citrus, so it’ll keep them at a distance.

Do carpenter bees and honey bees get along?

Carpenter bees will live happily alongside most races of honey bees without attacking each other. The carpenter bee is a gentle giant with no interest in robbing honey bees. It’s also a large insect, so honey bees keep their distance from them. Africanized honey bees are an exception; they protect their hive against anything that moves.

Summary comparison of honey bees and carpenter bees

 Honey BeeCarpenter Bee
ColorYellow and brown bands with subtle differences depending on the breed.Shiny black abdomen free from hair. Thorax may be yellow, brown, white, black, or blue.
Size½ – 5/8 inch length1 inch length
PersonalityOften docile but will defend their hive and can be aggressive.Friendly females, drones may appear aggressive but have no sting.
StingPainful and venomous sting, bee dies after attacking.Rarely stings, non-barbed means can sting multiple times.
ColonyUp to 60,000 in one hive.Solo or live in very small families.
NestLarge, beeswax hives.Tunnel into wood, building new cells for each egg.
PollinationDaintily collect pollen.Buzz pollination.
ResourcesHoney, wax, propolis, royal jelly.No harvestable products.

Summing up

Carpenter and honey bees are both important insects for the world’s ecosystem. They do an excellent job of pollinating crops and mostly go about their business in a non-aggressive way.

While honey bees are much more common, don’t underestimate the carpenter’s role in pollinating plants. They aren’t as fussy about what blooms they visit, and their ability to buzz pollinate is highly effective.

If honey and beeswax are your main interest, then honey bees are required. The equipment and initial bees will cost money to get started, but you’ll be rewarded with fresh, pure honey.

If you enjoy reading comparison guides, check how the mason bee and honey bee compare.

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