What a show!
Last weekend we spotted female European wool carder bees (so named because they collect or card plant hairs for their nests) buzzing in and out of our snapdragons.
The bees, about the size of honey bees, are mostly black and yellow. The females range in body length from 11 to 13 millimeters, while the males are 14 to 17 mm.
The males are very territorial. As we mentioned in a previous Bug Squad blog, they put the "terror" in territorial. The males bodyslam other insects, as they try to protect their turf, per chance to mate with the females. We've seen the males terrorize the much larger Valley carpenter bees--bodyslamming them, dislodging them and chasing them away.
The European wool carder bees, Anthidium manicatum, are natives of Europe. Their "immigrant ancestor" was first detected in the United States (New York) in 1963, and the species spread west. It was first recorded in California (Sunnyvale) in 2007.
The bee, according to research entomologist Tom Zavortink of the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis, was accidentally introduced into New York state. It was not purposefully introduced to pollinate alfalfa, as some reports allege, he said.
Writing in a 2008 edition of the Pan-Pacific Entomologist, Zavortink and fellow entomologist Sandra Shanks, now of Port Townsend, Wash., pointed out that several papers “have documented its spread from neighboring areas in the northeastern United States and southern Canada” and that the species has since crossed the country. It was confirmed in Colorado in 2005, Missouri in 2006, and Maine, Michigan, Maryland and California (Sunnyvale) in 2007, the entomologists wrote. Records show it was first collected in Davis on July 26, 2007.
It was well established in the Central Valley by 2008, according to Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and UC Davis professor of entomology.
In Vacaville, we first encountered the European wool carder bee in the spring of 2010.
Its plant preferences include lamb's ear (Stachys byzantine, in the mint family Lamiaceae), a perennial grown for its fuzzy, silvery gray-green foliage. It's also been collected in the figwort/snapdragon family (Scrophulariacae) and the pea and bean family (Fabaceae), according to the Zavortink-Shanks research.
Usually the European wool carder bees are hanging around our foxgloves and catmint (neither is blooming yet) and our lavender (blooming but being ignored).
But snapdragons? We've never seen them foraging on snapdragons (Antirrhinum) until now. That's because we've never planted snapdragons until this spring!
Bee-hold, the eye of a bee-holder.
When you have a "Bee Crossing" sign in your pollinator garden, odds are that bees will cross right in front of that sign.
And it's not always a honey bee.
European wool carder bees (Anthidium manicatum) zip around our blue spike sage (Salvia uliginosa), chasing other bees away and trying to save it for "their girls"--per chance to mate with them.
In the photos below, a male European wool carder bee paused to sip some nectar before continuing his rounds.
Little did he know, a honey bee (on the sign) was staring right at him.
As its name implies, the European wool carder bee, Anthidium manicatum, is a native of Europe. American entomologists initially detected his "immigrant ancestor" 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.
Ever seen the male European wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) protecting its turf?
It's "no-holds barred" on our blue spike sage (Salvia uliginosa) and frankly, it's a delight to see and photograph.
The highly territorial male body-slams all floral visitors, including honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees and butterflies that are trying to seek a little nectar, too.
The wool carder bee (so named because the female scrapes or cards leaf fuzz for her nest) is an Old World bee belonging to the family Megachilidae (which also includes leafcutter and mason bees, among others). Accidentally introduced into the United States from Europe, this pollinator was first discovered in New York State in 1963, and then spread across the continent. Scientists found it in Davis, Calif. in 2007.
In size, wool carder bees are comparable to honey bees. They're readily distinguished, however, by their striking yellow markings on their black abdomens, and yellow faces. Males are considerably larger than females, and have a spine on either side of the last two abdominal segments and three spines on the last segment, according to Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis. Those spines have been mistaken for stingers, but only females have stingers.
One thing's for sure: their highly aggressive behavior tends to make honey bees forage faster! They don't want to get bonked! (Davis insect photographer Allan Jones aptly calls them "bonker bees.")
In our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., European wool carder bees seem to prefer blue flowers, especially our blue spike sage.
In fact, noted entomologist George Eickwort, writing in 1980 in the journal Psyche, observed that they seem to prefer "blue flowers with a relatively long throat."
We've seen the male carder bees protect patches of lamb's ear, foxgloves, catmint, oregano, cosmos, African blue basil, and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
However, they seem to go "bonkers" over bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis) and blue spike sage (Salvia uliginosa).
A blue plate special...
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!
He's the bully in the bee garden.
If you've ever watched the male European wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) patrolling "his" flower patch, you'll see him targeting insects several times larger than he is.
Take the case of the Valley carpenter bee (Xylocopa varipuncta), one of the largest bees in California. The female is solid black, while the male is a green-eyed blond.
Last week we were watching female Valley carpenter bees trying to gather some nectar from a bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis) when the much smaller male carder bee dive-bombed her.
The male was also dive-bombing and body-slamming honey bees, sweat bees leafcuter bees and other bees, in addition to butterflies. They do that to "save" the flowers for their own species and perchance to mate!
As the sun set, the sleepy male carder bees headed over to a bee condo to grab some shuteye.
The bee condo was meant for nesting blue orchard bees (which pollinate the almonds in the spring).
Bee condos can also be occupied by other critters, including spiders, wasps and European wool carder bees!