My mother sent me a photo of this bee from a petunia flower in her garden not long after moving to Papamoa this past summer. I initially thought it was a hoverfly as I couldn’t see two pairs of wings (flies only have one pair). Some hover flies protect themselves from predators by mimicking wasps by having yellow and black stripes. Similarly, both males and females wool carder bees will hover near flowers similar to hoverflies.
However this insect looked a little “fatter” than the hoverfly and the interrupted bands of bright yellow and black were more pronounced. A little more research and I discovered it was first identified in Napier and Nelson in 2006 as the European wool carder bee or Anthidium manicatum. It is now widespread throughout New Zealand, including Papamoa!
Wool carders aren’t hive dwellers, but solitary bees that live in holes or cracks they find in wood or stems or in the ground. Who knows how it arrived here, but just like the exotic European honey bee, it has plenty of exotic flowers to feed on so it is likely to stay.
It is native to Europe, northern Africa and Asia, but now also in the USA after being identified around 1963 (and Canada and Brazil).
Males are larger than the females, measuring 14-17 mm and are highly aggressive against other males of the same species and other nectar seeking insects visiting flowers in its territory. A dominant male will hover and dart with the deftness of a drone, picking off rivals such as competing honey bees who enter a flower patch reserved exclusively for him and his female companions.
They will fight to defend a food source for their harem of females. Of course, they don’t do this to be chivalrous, but for breeding rights. They harass them by holding them immobile and repeatedly attempting to mate. For most species of bees, it’s rare to witness a pair mating in the wild, but it’s hard not to see wool carder bees mating if they’re out and about.
The male wool carder bees main fighting tactic is to fly directly at the opponent and knock them off their perch, followed by a high-speed chase if they don’t get the message. They don’t have a stinger, but they do have barbs on the tip of their abdomen to assist in combat. They’re fearless fighters and don’t hesitate to take on bumble bees that are much larger than themselves.
The female measures 11-13 mm and can occasionally be seen ‘carding’ fibres from plants to make linings for their nests. The bee visits a variety of different plant species but you will see them on plants like petunia, rosemary and especially lamb's ear. The plant hairs are combed from the plant by using special rows of hairs on their legs and this is carried back to the nest in a ball held under the body. They build these nests in existing holes in timber, masonry, soil, wood piles, buildings or plant stems.
Typically by early evening, the females stop feeding and crawl under a leaf and scrape off some fuzz into a little cotton ball. They will take this home and line their nests with it. If you listen, you can hear them scratching.
Our Ministry of Primary Industries says that at the time of its first detection here it was considered unlikely that the wool carder bee would have any noticeable or significant impact to New Zealand’s apicultural industry. Since then, no impacts have been observed or reported. Other bees are seldom injured by the wool carder bee’s aggressive behaviour and they usually just fly away after an attack.
I am not aware of any studies to evaluate the potential impacts of the wool carder bee in New Zealand. Potential impacts may include competition with native pollinators for floral resources and nest sites, disruption of pollination of native plants and the pollination and further spread of exotic weeds. The solitary nature of this species suggests that it will not form large, dense or problem populations that could cause issues.
If you happen to see this bee in your garden over summer, don’t harm it as it does provide some useful pollination in between their sessions of fighting, lovemaking, and carding.