A sprawling lemon balm grows in the center of my chicken yard, surrounded by bushels of peppermint. Since they don’t care for mint-family plants, the chickens simply forge paths around them without eating any. They seem comfortable enough, lolling in the minty shade during hot August afternoons.
About two weeks ago, I noticed the lemon balm beginning to bloom, so I went looking for bee foragers. As soon as I got close, I was warned off by something that looked like a small bumble bee with a shiny abdomen and stripes like a wasp. I swiped at the aggressor with my butterfly net and was amazed to find a European wool carder bee, Anthidium manicatum.
Although I instantly knew what it was, I had never seen one up close and personal. I had seen dozens of photos, of course, but I didn’t know if they lived around here or not. I released the bee—definitely a male—and looked for the females. Sure enough, they were happily foraging on the lemon balm, flitting from bloom to bloom, sometimes hovering in the spaces between. The male went back to circling the bush, staking his territory and protecting his women.
If you are unfamiliar with wool carder bees, suffice it to say they are beautiful creatures. Brilliant yellow markings and yellow legs might lead you to think of a wasp or hover fly, but the colored bands are interrupted in the middle of the abdomen, and the females have an abdominal scopa for carrying pollen. The females are about the size of a honey bee worker—visibly smaller than their male counterparts. The males have yellow faces and black barbs on the tip of their abdomen.
The males are known for their territorial behavior. They will butt at anything that comes into their space, including honey bees, butterflies, beetles, and camera lenses. When I leaned close to photograph a female, the male bashed my lens in a startling drive that made me want a suit of armor. The males also use their barbs to further discourage intruders.
Wool carders are not native to North America but were first seen in New York in 1963. Since they are cavity nesters that prefer old wood, some believe they were carried in shipping crates aboard cargo vessels. Once established, they spread across the continent, first appearing in California in 2007.
Like many other members of the Megachilidae family, wool carders use leaves, petals, pebbles, and other collected material to build their nests. But they line the nests with plant fibers scraped from the leaves of hairy plants such as Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ears), hence the name “wool carder” bee. Once they scrape up a sizeable ball of fiber, they carry it back to the nest in a clump under their bodies.
Wool carders are polylectic, meaning they collect nectar and pollen from many different plants, but they are particularly fond of species in the mint and pea families. They like flowers with relatively long throats and, of course, lots of downy fibers.
In temperate North America, they are active from July to September, so now is the time to go have a look. They are really fun to watch. The females forage while the males guard, and they all hover—just like hover flies—something I’ve been told bees never do. They are quick, but they do rest on a leaf now and again, which gives you an opportunity to see how striking they are.