Striking yellow bands grace the abdomen, adorned beneath with a soft white fur. The thorax is delicately covered with white hairs while wings of deep brown and legs of yellow beetle out. Large eyes of dark fawn look out inquisitively from a face plated with yellow, as black antennae wave softly in front. Slowly emerging into the cool dawn light, she is revealed as a wool carder bee, Anthidium manicatum.
Appearing in late May, these bees will remain buzzing until late August. The female bee can be found routinely returning to a favoured patch of woundworts such as garden lamb’s ear. She will spend her time nibbling the soft white hairs off the leaves before gripping the large silvery clump in her mandibles; she then flies determinedly back to her chosen nest site.
These nest sites can be found in pre-existing cavities in walls, hollow stems, dead wood and various other human-forgotten objects. The industrious female will use the collected silver hairs to form nest cells. She tightly packs the plant material, dextrously using her flat face to ensure a well-fitted cell and closing plug for her young larva to develop inside. When she is not building and tending to her nest, she will collect nectar and pollen (for herself and to provision young) from a range of legumes and labiate plants such as bird’s foot trefoil and kidney vetch.
The male, in contrast to the female, lives a far from meek and trouble-free life. He is a robust bee reaching 12mm in length (larger than the 10mm female) and, while similar in colouration to the female, has white tufts on each foot and a series of five spines on his abdominal tip.
The male’s life revolves around protecting a territory containing plants which the females use to build their nests and forage from. Each individual male has his own separate territory which he defends with vigour. Keeping his territory free of rival males is understandable but the decidedly feisty male wool carder will do his utmost to ensure that no-one enters his patch. If an unsuspecting bumblebee barrels haphazardly into his territory looking for a food source, it will be met with anger by the wool carder who will attack the bee; furiously darting, head-butting, and even wrestling it to make sure it keeps off. If the intruding insect is particularly persistent, or the wool carder is feeling particularly cross, he will catch the offending creature and proceed to kill by crushing it between his abdominal spines and thorax.
This effort ensures that his patch of flowers remain well stocked with nectar so any visiting female will not be disappointed and fail to return. If he is successful, this method allows him to mate with the female to pass his genes on to the next generation of wool carders.
Wool carders can be found fairly frequently in gardens across southern England and the south coast of Wales but become progressively scarcer north of the Midlands. To attract this beautiful species to your garden, planting lots of lamb’s ear is an extremely good start.