European Wool Carder Bees: Likable Bullies

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european wool carder bee anthidium manicatum charges honey bee 77 (1)
A European wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) zeros in on a honey bee who dares to forage in his territory. She will pay.

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.

european wool carder bee anthidium manicatum charges honey bee 85 (1)
I did want to rip this sedum plant out, but now it’s such a hot commodity, I don’t dare.

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.

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A wool carder bee puts a hurtin’ on a honey bee. Is that a sleeper hold?
european wool carder bee anthidium manicatum attacks honey bee 4 (3)
A European wool carder bee sends a honey bee tumbling with a surprise attack. No sharesies!

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.

european wool carder bee anthidium manicatum docile in the morning 36 (3)
Bees are docile and sluggish on chilly mornings. Not so tough now, are ya?! You can even pet them. This is the time for macro photography without a macro lens.
european wool carder bee anthidium manicatum Teucrium hircanicum 167 (2)
Teucrium hircanicum is a long-blooming perennial that I’m liking a lot. It’s very easy to grow from seed but doesn’t flower until the second year. It’s like a spiky veronica but more drought tolerant.
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This is one of the bigger carder bees, on my teucrium.
european wool carder bee anthidium manicatum from top 54 (3)
And this is one of the smaller, feistier ones on my sedum.

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.

european wool carder bees anthidium manicatum males larger than females
A female European wool carder bee on the left and a male on the right.

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.

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A plucky little European wool carder bee charges a bumble bee that has strayed into his territory.
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A wool carder bee has rolled a bumble bee and is ready to rough her up some more if she doesn’t scram.
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Here you can see the barbs on the rear end of the male.

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.

european wool carder bee anthidium manicatum taunting honey bee 37 (4)
A European wool carder bee has seriously injured this honey bee, who struggles on the ground. Is the carder bee just checking up on her or is he taunting her?

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.

european wool carder bee anthidium manicatum mating 175 (2)
European wool carder bees telling secrets.
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It’s not all about the fighting. Carder bees make time for lovin’, too.
european wool carder bee anthidium manicatum love triangle 181 (1)
Love triangle. Two boys fighting over a girl. (I think.)

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.

european wool carder bee anthidium manicatum Stachys byzantina Helen von Stein 168 (2)
Big Ears lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina ‘Helen von Stein’) is a fabulous, bold, non-flowering perennial that is a welcome mat for European wool carder bees (Anthidium manicatum).
european wool carder bee anthidium manicatum on stachys 309
In early evening, female wool carder bees gravitate towards my lamb’s ears and scrape up some wool from the undersides of the leaves. If you listen, you can hear them scratching.
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Wool carder bees don’t really do any visible damage to my lamb’s ears. Mostly they take bits of fuzz from the undersides of the leaves.
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And it’s back to the nest. European wool carder bees line their nests with the soft down from woolly plants such as Stachys.

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.

european wool carder bee anthidium manicatum funny face 39 (4)
I have to say, I can’t help but like the little bullies.


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4 Responses

  1. Jane / Mulchmaid
    Jane / Mulchmaid at | | Reply

    How fun are these guys?! I’ll look more closely next time I see a chunky bee on a flower. I have Stachys ”Helen Von Stein’ too, so I’ll check it out for more fun there.

  2. Linda Coombs
    Linda Coombs at | | Reply

    I’ll have to take a closer look at my Teucrium . There are plenty of bees , but I can never Id any of them .

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