by Lori Austin
I had just finished watching a Zoom presentation, “Communing with Bees”, presented by the Native Bee Society of BC one July afternoon. The topic was beginner macrophotography. Coincidentally, immediately following the session, I heard a bee buzzing loudly around our open, screened kitchen window. I took a look outside – didn’t see the bee, but I noticed a white cottony-looking “cocoon” on the ledge outside the window, between the screen and the frame. Odd place for a cocoon, I thought, especially if the window was closed. However, it did explain the rectangular shape. The buzzing resumed and the bee reappeared, opened a little flap at one end of the nest and crawled inside. It looked waspish in its yellow and black colouring but had a thick furry body. Out came my camera!
After a little research, I determined this must be a female European wool carder bee, Anthidium manicatum, a type of bee in the same family as leaf-cutter and mason bees. It was introduced to the US in 1963, Canada in 1983 and is now widespread and invasive. It is seen in the warm summer months. It builds its nest in an aerial cavity, possibly to avoid predation by spiders. The female prepares two or three cells, lays her eggs and provides nectar and pollen for the offspring. Wool carder bees scrape the hairs (wool) off fuzzy-leaved plants such as those from the mint family and then “card” them and carry them in a ball to the nest. Just a short flight away was our herb garden with a large sage plant.
Late afternoon, as the temperature dropped, the bee returned to the nest and tucked herself in, head facing out. I gently closed the window for the night. The next morning, when I peeked in, the bee was still resting; it was quite cool outside. In the warmth of the afternoon, the bee began foraging and stocking up the nest again. Sometimes she went in headfirst, sometimes tail first. This behaviour continued for several days. When the window was closed, the bee was still able to go in and out (so much for sealed windows!). Finally, one morning I noticed she was gone. Her work was finished.
I noticed several male wool carder bees in the herb garden, hovering and guarding the flower patches. They are larger than the females and quite aggressive in chasing other bees away. Male bees do not sting but have barbs on their ends of their abdomens that they can attack other bees with. They can injure and even kill other bees that don’t get the hint to move on. One male hovered at eye level with me but did not engage!
There is some concern that wool carder bees may affect the foraging ability of native bees as well as non-native honeybees. This year I have noticed fewer bumble bees and more honeybees in the area with the wool carder bees. I may need to spread my herbs around the garden and away from the sage plant to give the other bees a chance.