Updated: 26th February 2021
The Wool Carder Bee,
Anthidium manicatum is a lovely bee, and fascinating to observe, particularly as some of its behaviours are so distinctive. Perhaps this should not surprise us - it is, after all a member of the Megachilidae family of bees, along with that other delightful group to watch - the leafcutters.
If you want to see these bees, one of the best places to catch them is around Lamb's Ear - (Stachys byzantina) where they may be foraging from May to August, depending when the Lamb's Ear is in bloom.
Later in this article is a short video of a female wool carder gathering plant hairs with which to plug her nest cells.
Lamb's Ear is a firm favourite with wool carder bees, as the female gathers the hairy fibres from the plant for plugging the cells of her nest that she makes in wall cavities, hollow stems or dead wood. In these nests, they raise a single generation of offspring each year.
There are some variations in the strength and colouring of the yellow markings. At first glance, some specimens of Anthidium manicatum, could easily be mistaken for a wasp – see the striking yellow and black markings on the female above.
I have to say that I made a deliberate effort to attract wool carder bees to my garden.
In making the effort, I planted Lamb's Ear - I already had at least two other favourite plants: Purple Toadflax and Hedge Woundwort.
As the patch grew, I transferred young plants to two other areas, one in the front of the garden, and an additional spot in the back. This means I now have 3 patches of Lamb's Ear, along with the other plants these bees like to forage on.
My reasoning is that these three parts of my garden vary in the amount of sun they get during the day, and I believe this slightly affects the blooming of the plants. I also felt it would be interesting to see whether a particular patch was preferred over another.
What I found was that all of the patches of Lamb's Ear were foraged on by females and patrolled by males.
Male wool carders are very territorial and protective of their patches of Lamb's Ear, only allowing female wool carder bees anywhere near the flowers.
I have observed them chasing off rival males, but also larger bees, literally dive bombing much larger bumble bees, seeing off mason bees, and any fly with the cheek to land on a flower.
What they are waiting for, is an opportunity to mate with the females, who are 'flown at' or 'ambushed', pounced on, quickly mated with, and then left to continue foraging.
I managed to take some pictures, but it all happened so fast, that I'm afraid they are blurred.
Still, you get a sense of the speed at which this all happens. (I hope one day to have a camera that can capture amazing action shots!).
What is also clear from these photographs is that the males are larger than the females. In fact, some males can be particularly large! This is relatively unusual in the world of solitary bees, where females are usually larger than males.
In colonies of social species such as honey bees and bumble bees, the workers are often smaller than males (or drones) but the queen is by far the largest bee in the colony.
The female wool carder also took a liking to the Purple Toadflax, and the Hedge woundwort behind my greenhouse.
In my efforts to increase forage and populations of bees, I also gave Lamb's Ear and Purple Toadflax plants to a neighbour just around the corner, and some to a concerned friend in the next village.
I recommend that if you are in the same position with bee-friendly plants to spare, find out if you can give them away to a neighbour, school or gardening group - where they will be used.
An interesting characteristic of the males is that they have 5 visible spikes at the end of the abdomens. Try as I might, I could not get a very good photograph of this characteristic, but you can just see 3 of them peeping out of the end of this male's abdomen if you look carefully. I highlight these in the lower photograph below.
According to Falk, these spines can be used to help the bee aggressively crush an intruder if needed! I have never observed this behaviour, but I have certainly seen them 'head butting' other insects!
In addition to Lamb's Ear, Purple Toadflax and Hedge Woundwort, wool carder bees may be seen visiting Black Horehound. They apparently also gather plant hairs from Great Mullein and Yarrow.
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