Nature shows always get you to root for the protagonist, whoever that may be. If the star of the show’s a fox, you’ll find yourself cheering her on to catch the rabbit (although you may have cheered for the rabbit in a previous episode). If the subject’s a skunk, you’ll wish him well as you watch him go about his day. And if the hero’s a European wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum), you’ll cheer for him, too—even though he’s kind of a heel.
I say he, because it’s the males who give this species its thuggish reputation. The peaceable females are known for their habit of scraping the fuzz from woolly-leaved plants to line their nests with (hence the name “wool carder bee”), while the males are known for their aggression. They will body slam and drive off any other wool carder males, honey bees, bumble bees, or various interlopers that dare to enter their no-fly zones.
I’ve been watching the European wool carder bees for a couple of weeks on the nature show playing in my Portland, Oregon backyard, and the little bullies have made for some entertaining programming.
European wool carder bees are slow to rise on chilly mornings, needing the warmth of the sun to get them moving. They usually begin foraging by late morning. I first noticed them on my Teucrium hircanicum, a hardy perennial from Iran that’s loaded with spikes of tiny purple flowers. I later spotted many more on my Sedum reflexum ‘Blue Spruce’. The bees on my sedum are smaller, less hairy, and more feisty than the others, and I almost wonder if they are another species of Anthidium, though I don’t think so.
The male wool carders on my teucrium are about the size of honey bees, but with stouter bodies. Females are significantly smaller than males and have similar yellow and black markings.
Once the weather warms up, male wool carder bees become less interested in foraging and more interested in fighting. A dominant male will hover and dart with the deftness of a drone, picking off rivals (mostly honey bees) who enter a flower patch reserved exclusively for him and his female companions.
Wool carder bees’ main fighting tactic is to fly directly at the opponent and knock her off her perch, followed by a high-speed chase if she doesn’t get the message. Male European wool carder bees don’t have a stinger, but they do have barbs on the tip of their abdomen to assist in combat. They’re fearless fighters and don’t hesitate to take on bumble bees that are much larger than themselves.
Trespassers usually take the hint and go elsewhere. I did see a few honey bees that persisted, only to be attacked again and again. They began to get sluggish and it was a little painful to watch, like the boxing scene in Cool Hand Luke: “Stay down, Luke! You’re beat.” I also witnessed a few honey bees become gravely injured.
Male European wool carder bees don’t fight to defend feeding grounds for themselves—they fight to defend a food source for their harem of females. Of course, they don’t do this to be chivalrous, but for breeding rights. For most species of bees, it’s rare to witness a pair mating in the wild, but it’s hard not to see wool carder bees mating if they’re out and about. They have zero sense of propriety.
Right next to my patch of teucrium and 10 feet from my sedum, I have a fat clump of Big Ears lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina ‘Helen von Stein’). When I put it in a couple of years ago, I unwittingly planted a European wool carder bee welcome mat. Lamb’s ears is their favored plant for “carding.”
When the shadows begin to fall over the garden in early evening, the females stop feeding, go to my lamb’s ears, crawl under a leaf, and scrape off some fuzz into a little cotton ball. They will take this home and line their nests with it. Wool carders aren’t hive dwellers, but solitary bees that live in holes or cracks they find in wood or stems or in the ground.
The European wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) was accidentally brought to the U.S. around 1963. It arrived in New York and has since spread across the country. It was first spotted in California in 2007, so it’s a relative newcomer here on the West Coast.
There’s been some concern that this exotic import could become a pest, attacking as it does our native pollinators as well as our non-native but valuable and beleaguered honey bees (American beekeepers lost 44% of their colonies in the 2015-2016 season from various causes). Certainly, their impact here is something we should keep an eye on, but for now it seems the wool carder bees’ damage is minimal, and they do accomplish a good deal of pollinating in between sessions of fighting, lovemaking, and carding.
I have to say, I can’t help but like the little bullies.