Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Little Carpenter-Bee

Teacher's Story

dropcap image AKE a dozen dead twigs from almost any sumac or elder, split them lengthwise, and you will find in at least one or two of them, a little tunnel down the center where the pith once was. In the month of June or July, this narrow tunnel is made into an insect apartment house, one little creature in each apartment, partitioned off from the one above and the one below. The nature of this partition reveals to us whether the occupants are bees or wasps; if it is made of tiny chips, like fine sawdust glued together, a bee made it and there are little bees in the cells; if it is made of bits of sand or mud glued together, a wasp was the architect and young wasps are the inhabitants. Also, if the food in the cells is pollen paste, it was placed there by a bee; if of paralyzed insects or spiders, a wasp made the nest.


The little carpenter-bee; her nest, cut open, showing the eldest larva at the bottom and the youngest nearest the entrance.

The little carpenter-bee (Ceratina dupla)  is a beautiful creature, scarcely one quarter of an inch in length, with metallic blue body and rainbow tinted wings. In May, she selects some broken twig of sumac, elder or raspberry, which gives her access to the pith; this she at once begins to dig out, mouthful by mouthful, until she has made a smooth tunnel several inches long; she then gathers pollen and packs bee-bread in the bottom of the cell to the depth of a quarter-inch, and then lays upon it, a tiny white egg. She then brings back some of her chips of pith and glues them together, making a partition about one-tenth of an inch thick, which she fastens firmly to the sides of the tunnel; this is the roof for the first cell and the floor of the next one; she then gathers more pollen, lays another egg, and builds another partition.


Nest of carpenter-wasp.

Comstock's Manual.

Thus she fills the tunnel, almost to the opening, with cells, sometimes as many as fourteen; but she always leaves a space for a vestibule near the door, and in this she makes her home while her family below her are growing up.

The egg in the lowest cell of course hatches first; a little bee grub issues from it and eats the bee-bread industriously and grows by shedding his skin when it becomes too tight; then he changes to a pupa and later to a bee resembling his mother. But, though fully grown, he cannot get out into the sunshine, for all his younger brothers and sisters are blocking the tunnel ahead of him; so he simply tears down the partition above him and kicks the little pieces of it behind him, and bides his time until the next youngest brother tears down the partition above his head and pushes its fragments behind him into the very face of the elder which, in turn, performs a similar act; and thus, while he is waiting, he is kept more or less busy pushing behind him the broken bits of all the partitions above him. Finally, the youngest gets his growth, and there they all are in the tunnel, the broken partitions behind the hindmost at the bottom of the nest, and the young bees packed closely together in a row with heads toward the door. When we find the nest at this period, we know the mother because her head is toward her young ones and her back to the door. A little later, on some bright morning, they all come out into the sunshine and flit about on gauzy, rainbow wings, a very happy family, out of prison.

But if the brood is a late one, the home must be cleaned out and used as a winter nest, and still the loyal little mother bee stays true to her post; she is the last one to enter the nest; and not until they are all housed within, does she enter. It is easy to distinguish her for her poor wings are torn and frayed with her long labor of building the nest, until they scarcely serve to carry her afield; but despite this she remains on guard over her brood, for which she has worn out her own life. The story of the little carpenter-wasps is similar to that of the bee, except that we have reason to believe they often use her abandoned tunnels instead of making new ones. They make their little partitions out of mud; their pupae are always in long, slender, silken cocoons, and we have no evidence that the mother remains in attendance.

Lesson CI

The Little Carpenter-Bee

Leading thought—Not all bees live in colonies like the honey-bees and bumblebees. One tiny bee rears her brood within a tunnel which she makes in the pith of sumac, elder or raspberry.

Method—This lesson may be given in June or in October. In June, the whole family of bees in their apartments may be observed; in autumn, the empty tenement with the fragments of the partitions still clinging may be readily found and examined; and sometimes a whole family may be found, stowed away in the home tunnel, for the winter.


1. Collect dead twigs of sumac or elder and cut them in half, lengthwise. Do you find any with the pith tunneled out?

2. How long is the tunnel? Are its sides smooth? Can you see the partitions which divide the long narrow tunnel into cells? Look at the partitions with a lens, if necessary, to determine whether they are made of tiny bits of wood or of mud. If made of mud, what insect made them? If of little chips how and by what were they constructed?

3. Are there any insects in the cells? If so, describe them. Is there bee-bread in the cells?


Nest of large carpenter-wasp.

Comstock's Manual.

4. For what was the tunnel made? With what tools was it made? How are the partitions fastened together? How does a young bee look?

5. Write the story of the oldest of the bee family which lived in this tunnel. Why did it hatch first? On what did it feed? When it became a full fledged bee, what did it do? How did it finally get out?

6. Take a glass tube, the hollow at the center being about one-eighth of an inch across, a tube which you can get in any drug-store. Break this tube into sections, six or seven inches long, wrap around each a black paper or cloth, made fast with rubber bands and suspend them in a hedge or among thick bushes in May. Examine these tubes each week to see if the wasps or bees are using them.

Supplementary reading—"The Story We Love Best," in Ways of the Six-footed, Comstock.

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