Social groups form when the costs of breeding independently exceed fitness costs imposed by group living. The costs of independent breeding can often be energetic, especially for animals performing expensive behaviours, such as nest construction. To test the hypothesis that nesting costs can drive sociality by disincentivizing independent nest founding, we measured the energetics of nest construction and inheritance in a facultatively social carpenter bee (Xylocopa sonorina Smith), which bores tunnel nests in wood. We measured metabolic rates of bees excavating wood and used computerized tomography images of nesting logs to measure excavation volumes. From these data, we demonstrate costly energetic investments in nest excavation of a minimum 4.3 kJ per offspring provisioned, an expense equivalent to nearly 7 h of flight. This high, potentially prohibitive cost of nest founding may explain why females compete for existing nests rather than constructing new ones, often leading to the formation of social groups. Further, we found that nest inheritors varied considerably in their investment in nest renovation, with costs ranging more than 12-fold (from 7.08 to 89.1 kJ energy), likely reflecting differences in inherited nest quality. On average, renovation costs were lower than estimated new nest construction costs, with some nests providing major savings. These results suggest that females may join social groups to avoid steep energetic costs, but that the benefits of this strategy are not experienced equally.