Making Peace with Bees (and Wasps???)

Gardening magazines and books joyfully extol the wonders and pleasures of having a flower garden. At the top of the list of reasons to have one is the fact that a flower garden is great for pollinators. What they fail to mention—maybe it’s in the fine print—is that pollinators, like many people, like to live close to shops and restaurants. Which, if you have a flower garden, means your house. Honey bees are the most considerate of insects. They visit and go home at night. So do bumblebees. Wasps and carpenter bees move in. 

Carpenter bees are called carpenter bees because they like to work with wood. More accurately, they want to drill holes in your eaves, decks, and porches. They are quite skilled too. The holes are perfectly round with a nice little gift pile of sawdust just beneath. 

I had never heard of carpenter bees until the second year of the garden. Likely, I thought they were bumblebees, because, at a glance, they are so similar in appearance. But look closer, and carpenter bees have black abdomens whereas bumble bees have some yellow fuzz. I mention this just in case you run into one.  

Carpenter bee enjoying salvia, UltraMax, Maxxum 70

My first face-to-face encounter happened that second summer. While attempting to trim the black and blue salvia, I noticed that most bees flew away when I approached. But some would actually get in my face. I mean that literally. A carpenter bee will fly toward your face and sit there, hovering 12 inches or so away until one of you backs down. At first, I lost all the showdowns. But since I have access to Google and they don’t, I got the upper hand. You see carpenter bees are very reluctant to sting, and they will turn and go (not in a hurry) if one calls their bluff. I haven’t lost any showdowns since. Of course, I never pick fights either. Now when I trim the salvia, I shake the branch as little as possible, since they are really into black and blue salvia, so they don’t budge. And out of consideration that they are dining, I prefer not to interrupt a pleasant meal, so I don’t bag the trimmings right away. That gives them time to visit all the blossoms and move on. Of course, they still drill the holes in my house, but I did open a condo with great restaurants on the premises, so we’ll call it even. 

Wasp having a drink, Lomography 800, 7000i

Wasps come in many varieties; I’ve noticed four. There are black and white ones, which are down-right mean, and seem to prefer canna lily blossoms. There are mud wasps that dine on spiders, and since I have more spiders than ever, they are welcome to stay–although I insisted they move the nest out of the mailbox. There is a smaller, reddish wasp that doesn’t visit much. Finally, there is the regular kind that built eight nests in the deck, which my brother and I discovered while painting. Painting while running is not an efficient workflow, in case you are wondering.  

But, on a good day when things are quiet, and the flowers are in bloom, I have my live-and-let-live moments, and one such occasion was last summer. 

Bloom season, Fuji Superia X-TRA 400, Maxxum 70

I try to keep the birdbath filled. However, in summer at mid-day, the water gets too hot, so I dump it and refill later. Now, many times I’ve dumped out dead bugs, without much thought as to how they managed to drown. That particular day, waiting to take a few snaps, I noticed a wasp landing on the birdbath, walking down the bowl, then flying away. Other wasps repeated this behavior. Intrigued, I decided to put cool water in the basin to see what would happen. To my surprise, a wasp showed up, walked down the bowl, and took a refreshing drink! As I sat there, other insects stopped briefly to drink.  

At a prior point in life, the idea of wasps stopping by would have led to a doomsday-level plan to handle the invaders. But, I realized wasps are just being wasps, and I could be charitable about a drink of water. Also, the mud wasps do eat spiders, so it seemed a slight compromise was in order. I even went so far as to put slices of wine cork in the water so they would not drown so easily. (I know, I know.) The wasps could drink all they wanted, but we needed to be clear–there were no condo units available. 

Boundaries, as with people, are the key to dealing with bees and wasps. Unfortunately, only the honey bees get this. And now that it’s spring, carpenter bees are looking for nice pieds-a-terre on the deck and wasps are buzzing the eaves. I’ve explained the rules to both, sometimes heatedly—really. But they don’t take me seriously because there’s a free full buffet, and what reasonable person lays out a party spread from May through September if he really doesn’t want guests? Can’t fault the logic here. 

Perhaps, I can ask the honey bees for a discreet and effective way to let the carpenter bees and wasps know they’ve overstayed their welcome. I’ll say I’m not really bothered, just asking for a friend…


  1. This article was really moving for me. I really love nature, and I enjoy looking at great photography. Both have a special place in my heart. My favorite photo is the opening photo. There is such a richness of color in the flowers center, and the scene captured is emotionally stirring for me.

    I also enjoyed reading about your experiences with the bees, I could see it in my mind as you described it. One part that really grabbed my attention, was the wasp and the water. The water was to warm for it so it left. Such a great story. Enjoyed the read and the photography.

    1. I find myself spending more and more time simply observing the garden and being amazed at the behavior of the insects as well as squirrels and chipmunks.

  2. I loved the intricate details of your study with the bees..the humor and how I equated it to condo living and fine dining. You running and painting the deck, again you have done yourself

  3. Bees, YES! and there are many smaller Bees which we need to become familiar with and support. Not just the Honey Bees, which are not Native to North America.

    Wasps I am allergic to, but I leave them alone if they leave me alone.

    1. Hi Kate, I’ve become friendly with bees—not something I ever thought I would say. I realized I was doomed when I went looking everywhere for a wine cork to put in the birdbath. I’ve gone soft. Hope the aphids never find out.

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