When a bee that seems to rival the size of a hummingbird gets in your face, there's a tendency for the flight or fight response to kick in. And it's usually the flight part.
Typically, that's unnecessary. Rarely do those big, fat-bottomed bees do us bodily harm. They aren't nearly as mean and nasty as we might assume -- or in some cases, as the bees would have you believe. There are two similar but quite different types of these rotund buzzers around us. One is the bumble bee, which is sort of the default identity for a big yellow and black bee. The other is the carpenter bee, often mistaken for a bumble bee, but one with a very dissimilar lifestyle.
Both bumble and carpenter bees have a body length up to about one inch. The body is robust, and in flight both bees play much larger in our eyes.
Bumble bees, a few species of the genus Bombus, are stout, hairy and generally black with yellowish bands (plus maybe a blonde tip on its abdomen, its rear end).
An important identifier for the bumble bee is that the rear, that abdomen, is quite fuzzy.
Bumble bees are social critters, living in nest colonies that can have a few as 50 bees or up to 200 individuals, perhaps even more, by the end of summer. These nests are good only for a season, begun in the very early spring and done for with the onset of cold weather in fall.
A young, fertilized queen bumble bee emerges from hibernation in early spring and starts a new nest in a hole in the ground, a hollow tree, in dense vegetation or maybe even under a man-made structure.
She hatches out helpers, and all go about the bee business of gathering pollen and plant nectar for food, laying eggs and rearing more of their kind. Bumblers are important as pollinators of flowering plants, trees and crops.
The queen and female worker bumble bees can sting but are non-aggressive. They are social nesters and will protect their nest in a pinch, but they are far less touchy than paper wasps, other social nesters.
In practical application, let me say that, while I've been stung numerous times by wasps and yellowjackets, I recall but a single bumble bee sting, that after accidently disturbing a nest hole.
They aren't too touchy about guarding their nests, and aside from that, bumble bees pose almost no threat of stinging. If you don't molest one, it won't molest you.
Carpenter bees, meanwhile, are even less of a stinging threat, although some put on a pretty good tough guy act.
Sometimes a bit larger than a bumble bee, the carpenter bee is an impressive flying bug. Again, it's like the bumbler, but its abdomen/butt is hairless and shiny black. The glossy black butt is the signature identifier for this bee, one of the Xyloclopa genus.
Carpenter bees are not social but, rather, are considered solitary. Each nest involves a single adult female, an attending male, and offspring that emerge in late summer.
Carpenter bees (or "wood bees," as some call them) don't build nests. Instead, the female bores one, cutting a tunnel of about ½-inch in diameter in soft wood. Inside the shaft the female lays eggs, each in a cell that's provisioned with pollen to feed the youngster that hatches later.
The male carpenter bee hangs around and confronts intruders that might threaten the nest. These males are famous for intimidating people that come around nests, sometimes hovering right in the face of an imposing human.
The female does have the potential to administer a painful sting, but she seldom does. You might have to poke around into the tunnel or catch a female in hand before you can confirm that, yep, this hurts, so it's a she.
I've never been stung by a carpenter bee despite having done battle, even swatting them bare-handed, many times. Few people probably ever incur a carpenter bee sting.
If all they did was get in your face and try to bluff you, carpenter bees would be no issue at all. Alas, often when they pick a spot to cut their nest tunnels, it's in a garage, outbuilding or even in the eaves of your home.
Many times, you might find a little pile of shavings on a floor or on your vehicle, then locate that ½-inch hole above it, indicating that a female carpenter bee is making a nursery chamber in the studs of your structure.
Carpenter bees favor unpainted soft woods like pine, usually boring in an inch or so, then turning at a right angle and running a shaft with the direction of the wood grain. The nest tunnel may only stretch a few inches, but they reuse tunnels over multiple years and the resulting holes can reach into feet. Multiple boring bees, too, can accumulate enough holes to structurally weaken studs.
Pesticides are available to treat the nests and bees therein. Individuals that buzz and challenge your right to occupy the same areas can be dealt with on a one-to-one basis.
I find that a badminton racket is the definitive answer to carpenter bees that would rout me from my own facilities.