Carpenter bees and woodpeckers


Carpenter bees and woodpeckers are wrecking a reader’s trellis. Pictured is an Eastern carpenter bee. (istockphoto)
July 17, 2013

QI’m having a terrible time with carpenter bees and woodpeckers damaging a cedar trellis. I understand the bees release pheromones and that’s what attracts the woodpeckers. The bees aren’t that big a problem, but the woodpeckers did so much damage last year that I had to replace some of the cedar boards. The repair was not inexpensive. I can’t do that every spring.

I treat and patch the holes after the fact. Is there anything I can do to treat the wood to prevent the bees from drilling their holes in the first place?

Boyds

AThe woodpeckers are probably going after the bee larvae because of the noise they make as they grow within the wood, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

To thwart them, it helps to know a little about the life cycle of the bees, which resemble bumblebees but have shiny, rather than fuzzy, abdomens. Beginning in April or May, the females flit about, then chew into wood to create half-inch-wide tunnels where they lay their eggs. The tunnels usually go lengthwise within a single board — a piece of siding, a railing or, as you’ve seen, a part of a trellis. The bees typically don’t reach the framing of a house and thus don’t cause structural damage.

At the far end of the tunnel, the female bee deposits an egg and a little food packet, mostly pollen. Then she seals off that chamber with a thin wall, puts down another egg and food packet, and builds another wall. Over the summer, the eggs hatch and the larvae grow fat on the food left for them. They make enough noise to tip off woodpeckers, which then use their beaks to unearth the tasty treats. This, of course, expands the damage. Instead of having a single half-inch entry hole, you get a series of holes where the woodpeckers got into each little chamber.

If the woodpeckers don’t get to them first, the larvae chew their way out and emerge as adult bees after about three months, in reverse order of when the eggs were laid. The adults overwinter, often in the then-empty tunnel. In April or May in the Washington area, the adults emerge and the cycle repeats.

Knowing all this, you can target your actions to the most effective times of the year. One solution is to spray into the bee entry holes with an aerosol labeled for use against wasps, hornets and bees. Or puff a little insecticide dust labeled for use against carpenter bees into each hole. Do this in early spring when you first spot the bees flying about, or in late summer, when the adult bees emerge. Wait a week after you apply the insecticide so there’s time for the bees to come in contact with it, then plug the holes with wood putty or stainless steel wool.

Another solution is to remove and replace all boards that the bees have infested. Do this during the summer, when the larvae are within the boards. In the spring, there’s too much risk that the adults will already be out and about. Carpenter bees are considered “solitary bees” because they don’t create the elaborate social structure of a hive. But generations do go back to where they were born. It’s common for offspring to extend branch tunnels from ones that their mother created. So the trick is to wipe out an entire generation fixated on your trellis.

Once you’ve gotten rid of the bees and restored the trellis, consider painting the wood. Carpenter bees are much less likely to tunnel into wood that’s painted or varnished. Soft, weathered wood is a lot easier to chew.

We intend a move to Santa Fe, N.M., and want to take pieces of furniture, including some antiques, that have spent their life on the humid East Coast. We’ve had friends tell us that wood furniture that’s not used to New Mexico’s arid conditions will split and warp. Are we doomed? Should we sell everything and start over, or is there anything we can do (besides running humidifiers all the time)?

Vienna

You’re wise to be concerned. Wood continues to expand and contract as it absorbs or dries in response to humidity, no matter how long ago it was crafted into furniture. In the Washington area, the air is naturally quite humid, with average humidity of 83 percent in the morning and 55 percent in the afternoon. In Santa Fe, the air is dry, dry, dry. The morning average is 45 percent, and the afternoon average is just 18 percent. This means that wood joints that have been intact in your current house are likely to spring open as the wood shrinks once you move.

“Tell them that if they have a grand piano or any really valuable veneer pieces, to not bring them,” Ray Herrera, owner of Ray Herrera Antique Repairing in Santa Fe (505-983-2379), said when told of your questions. “Or bring them and then I’ll have work!”

He said he has heard horror stories of grand pianos popping in the middle of the night as joinery came loose. “Everything’s going to dry out,” he said. “Every chair, every joint.”

There are only two alternatives for people who want to bring wooden furniture with them to Santa Fe, he said. Run humidifiers, or take pieces with loose joints to someone like him. Often, it’s just a matter of regluing the joints. But that involves disassembling the pieces, cleaning off the old glue and then applying fresh glue and clamps. To reglue a typical wooden chair, Herrera charges $150. If other repairs need to be done, that’s extra.

Given that it costs a lot to haul furniture across the country and that existing furniture doesn’t always work out in a new house, you’re probably best off selling it now and buying replacements after you move, except perhaps for a few pieces that mean a lot to you.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com . Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

The Checklist Read Jeann e Huber’s roundup of home-improvement tasks you ­should tackle in July, such as clipping back branches and taking inventory of valuables, at washingtonpost.com/home.

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