Meet the competitors.
In this corner, meet Mr. Teddy Bear. He's a blond, green-eyed carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta, a native, and one of three species of carpenter bees commonly found from northern to southern California to western New Mexico.
In the other corner, meet Mr. Bodyslam. He's a European wool carder bee, Anthidium manicatum, a native of Europe. His "immigrant ancestor" was first detected in the United States (New York) in 1963, and the species spread west. The carder bee (so named because the female "cards" fuzz from plants for her nest) was first recorded in California (Sunnyvale) in 2007.
The competitors meet on foxglove, Digitalis purpurea, which yields dramatic pink-purple fingerlike flowers (and medicine for heart patients).
Mr. Teddy Bear is famished. He's doing what entomologists call "nectar robbing." He's drilling a hole in the corolla and drinking nectar, bypassing the usual plant-pollinator relationship. He's grabbing the reward and "cheating" by entering the flower from the outside, avoiding contact with the anthers.
Mr. Bodyslam is territorial. He's patrolling the foxglove patch--HIS foxglove patch--trying to save the nectar for his own species so he can mate with them. When he sees intruders, he targets them.
So here's Mr. Teddy Bear, drilling and sipping, sipping and drilling. Life is good.
"Hey, get away from my flowers and nobody gets hurt! They're mine!"
"Hey, I'm bigger than you. Get lost."
And the battle begins.
The winner, in this corner, Mr. Teddy Bear. He successfully avoided contact by crawling between the flowers (where Mr. Bodyslam couldn't reach him) and then sneaking to the corolla.
But once--just once--contact erupted. Ouch!
It's the easy way to do it.
A carpenter bee heads for a foxglove blossom and drills a hole in the corolla to sip the nectar. This is "nectar robbing"--bypassing the pollination process and heading straight for the reward, the nectar.
Honey bees are quick learners. Soon they're sipping nectar from the hole pierced by the carpenter bee and they are not supplying "pollination services," either.
We all take shortcuts.
We look for the shortest line at the supermarket, we use keyboard shortcuts, and we text ”how r u?”
So, why shouldn't honey bees use shortcuts? They do.
If you've ever watched a carpenter bee drill a hole in the corolla of a tubed flower to get at the nectar—this is "nectar robbing" or bypassing pollination—you may have seen a honey bee come along and sip nectar from the hole. Why work hard to get at the nectar when it's right there for the taking?
This is the insect version of a convenience market!
Take the foxgloves (family Plantaginaceae, genus Digitalis). Sometimes you'll see a honey bee trailing or shadowing a carpenter bee that moves from corolla to corolla.
Short cut to the nectar!
Foxgloves, meet the European wool carder bee.
European wool carder bee, meet the foxgloves.
It's like "old home week" when these two get together. The plant (Digitalis purpurea) and the bee (Anthidium manicatum) are both native to Europe.
European wool carder bees, so named because the females collect or "card" leaf fuzz for their nests, were introduced in New York in 1963, and then began spreading west. They were first recorded in California (Sunnyvale) in 2007.
Honey bees (Apis mellifera) arrived in America 341 years before their cousins. European colonists brought the honey bee to America (Jamestown colony, Virginia) in 1622, but the honey bees didn't make it to California (San Jose area) until 1853.
Now they're together again, so to speak, but it's not a happy situation when a male wool carder bee spots a foraging honey bee.
Male European wool carder bees are very aggressive and territorial. They'll "bonk" other insects that land on "their" flowers such as lamb's ear, catmint and basil. They'll bodyslam honey bees, butterflies, sweat bees, carpenter bees, bumble bees and even a hungry praying mantis or an eight-legged spider (arachnid) or two. It's all about trying to save the floral resources for their own species so they can mate and reproduce.
One thing is certain: honey bees forage faster when those foxy male European wool carder bees buzz the garden.
They know each other well.