The Wool Carder Bee and a little from Gilbert White.

I was trying to adopt a “less is more” approach for this post as I had written about the Anthidium, or Wool Carder bees when I painted Anna’s Bee back in December and included some of Fabre’s lovely writing about what he called “The Cotton Bee”.

But there is so much to know about these really attractive rather wasp-like little bees. So, I can do no better really than to send you over to biologist Blackbirds’s excellent Bug Blog, to read the posts tagged with Anthidium manicatum here.

There are 4 excellent posts with some wonderful photographs and observations of behaviour and links. Here are just two photos: the male with his lovely yellow face and the shy little female.

Male feeding     female A manicatum

Photos by Blackbird from Bug Blog.

This is a short quote from the post entitled “ Wool Carder Bee Watching 2: the Female

“The first time I came across Anthidium manicatum, the Wool-Carder Bee was after hearing it, not the usual humming noise bees make when flying, but that produced by a female’s jaws cutting the hairs of a plant I had recently planted in the garden, Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina). Since then, this has been a plant that has not been missing from the garden, just because it is a sure way of attracting Wool-Carder bees.”

If you are interested in these bees and others there are many other wonderful posts in the blog. The Anthidium family have many fascinating variations on the black and yellow patterning.  There is a very good page showing different types on the French “World of Insects” site, compiled by Alain Ramel here.

Gilbert White and Selborne

It’s inevitable that we who like bees will find the same references from the great Natural History writers or a nicer way of putting perhaps the ‘natural philosophers’.
Blackbird has also included Fabre in the anthidium posts and this passage from Gilbert White’s summer observation from “The Natural History of Selborne” which, on a gloomy cold rainy day here made me smile!  His entry is from July 11th 1772.

“Drought has continued five weeks this day.  Watered the rasp and annuals well. There is a sort of wild bee frequenting the garden-campion for the sake of its tomentum, which probably it turns to some purpose in the business of nidification.  It is very pleasant to see with what address it strips off the pubes, running from the top to the bottom of a branch, & shaving it bare with all the dexterity of a hoop-shaver. When it has got a vast bundle, almost as large as itself, it flies away, holding it secure between its chin and its forelegs.”

But I came across this passage from a different  source .. from the lovely annotated site “The Natural History of Selborne,  Journals of Gilbert White” compiled by animator Sydney Padua. You can read entries by month and date which show Gilbert White’s simple observations from different years, here are 2 entries for tomorrow, the last day of February.

  • “1769: February 28, 1769 – Raven sits.
  • 1768: February 28, 1768 – Wet continues still: has lasted three weeks this day. Pinched off the tops of the cucumber plants, which have several joins.”

Reading back over passages from this wonderful book, which our family, as many others, has never been without, I had forgotten..( how could I!) about Timothy the Tortoise, and had a flash of memory about our much loved childhood tortoises.
The site is full of links to Gilbert White, the Journals, Selborne  etc. and one of my favourite quotes is .. in response to people writing to her and asking if their version of the book is valuable (there are thousands)..

“The best reply was my husband’s, to an email that read in its entirety, “I have a copy of “The Natural History of Selborne is it worth anything” — “If you read it, yes.”

Sydney, by the way is one of those excellent animators I was talking about yesterday whose drawing skills are so very good. See her animation site and wonderful sketches here.

The Painting

I had a small dilemma. I want to paint the male bee as his markings are slightly more showy and wanted to show that rather intimidating spiked tail,  but I also wanted to include the wooly plant Stachys byzantina (Lambs Ears) which the bees use to make their nests.

This could be thought of as misleading because it is the female who makes the nests but I was encouraged to read that the males also feed on Stachys flowers, and, of course, hang around the plant too in search of a mate.
I initially thought about including a bigger leaf with a tiny drawing of the female carding.. but common sense prevailed. I was able to use Anna’s specimen again too, but had a slight accident and lost half of it on the floor..after an hour searching with a torch I did retrieve it. Half a bee is not easy to find on a patterned carpet.

But anyway, here is the male heading hopefully  over to the Lamb’s Ears!

anthidium sketch sm woolcarder sketch small


The Wool Carder bee, Anthidium manicatum and Wooly Lamb’s Ear Stachys byzantina

woolcarder bee sm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP. 7’” square approx.

Anna’s Anthidium: Bee No 12:The Wool Carder Bee

Over the last few weeks I have been writing to various people to get some help with my bee paintings.

I like to work from real models if possible and thought one way round this was to beg or borrow some spare bees from researchers. Anna from Anna’s Bee World who I have mentioned before and who helped me with the blue wasp identification has very kindly sent me a couple of samples, one of which was this beautiful Anthidium.

It is wonderful to have such good reference. Thank you Anna.

Seeing these striking black and yellow markings, you could be forgiven for thinking this bee was a wasp.
This is the Wool Carder Bee, Anthidium sp so called because they “card” the wooly covering from leaves to use as nest material.

The female has five sharp teeth on her mandibles with which she bites through the downy fibers. She then rolls them into a ball, tucks it under her body and carries it back to the nest .

3. -- rolls it into a neat ball

‘A female Anthidium manicatum commences cropping the woolly tomentum of a leaf ‘ from a series of photos by Neil Robinson BWARS here.

There is a very good article about Anthidium manicatum from here

These bees are members of the Megachile family whose females carry pollen on the underside of the abdomen in the scopa (stiff hairs). This is quite different from other bees who carry the pollen on their hind legs.
The male bees are territorial and armed with three spikes at the end of their abdomen.
They will use these to deter other insects while patrolling their patch and keeping a lookout for females. They nest in pre existing cavities, often in old plant stems, laying eggs in their downy nests and providing pollen balls for the hatched larvae.

I am always struck by the lack of affectionate writing about nature these days. Books and websites tend to be either simply factual or rather vague.
I generally try to find good writing from an earlier time where there is still that sense of wonder. It was nice to discover that the great writer and entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre shared my view!
He was criticised by his contemporaries for his gentle and colloquial style of writing.. here is his excellent reply:

“Others again have reproached me with my style, which has not the solemnity, nay, better, the dryness of the schools. They fear lest a page that is read without fatigue should not always be the expression of the truth. Were I to take their word for it, we are profound only on condition of being obscure.”

and here he writes about the Little Wool Carder Bee, which he calls the Cotton Bee:

We have but to see the nest of a Cotton-bee to convince ourselves that its builder cannot at the same time be an indefatigable navvy.
When newly-felted and not yet made sticky with honey, the wadded purse is by far the most elegant known specimen of entomological nest-building, especially where the cotton is of a brilliant white…
No bird’s-nest, however deserving of our admiration, can vie in fineness of flock, in gracefulness of form, in delicacy of felting with this wonderful bag, which our fingers, even with the aid of tools, could hardly imitate, for all their dexterity.
I abandon the attempt to understand how, with its little bales of cotton brought up one by one, the insect, no otherwise gifted than the kneaders of mud and the makers of leafy baskets, manages to felt what it has collected into a homogeneous whole and then to work the product into a thimble-shaped wallet.
Its tools as a master-fuller are its legs and its mandibles, which are just like those possessed by the mortar-kneaders and Leaf-cutters; and yet, despite this similarity of outfit, what a vast difference in the results obtained!

Fabre wanted to try to see how the bees manipulated the wool to make the nest and so replaced their reed homes with glass rods. It worked for some bees but not others:

For four years I supplied my hives with glass tubes and not once did the Cotton-weavers or the Leaf-cutters condescend to take up their quarters in the crystal palaces.
They always preferred the hovel provided by the reed. Shall I persuade them one day? I do not abandon all hope.

There is much much more of his delightful writing about the Wool Carder Bee here, part of the excellent website about Fabre complete with electronic texts:


There are many different species of Anthidium and they have beautiful distinctively different patterns. I have spent quite a long time looking at the patterns and feel I really need to paint them all.

I was asked how I worked on these paintings, so this is my set up for the Anthidium. I will record a close up step by step if I can remember.
I often intend to, for my own records, but normally get so engrossed that I just work from start to finish without stopping.

I have a little magnifying “third hand” which helps hold the bee in position and I used the back of an old picture frame as a small sloping board.
After the initial sketches to determine the position, (in this case I really wanted to show off the beautiful markings on the abdomen) I draw the image lightly on the paper and then with the bee next to me, a good light and a lot of patience, I work on the painting in stages.

I have 2 good W&N series 7 sable brushes sizes 0 and 00 and some cheaper synthetic ones for the initial washes. This painting took 5 hours once I had the image drawn on the paper. There are more details and more colours than show in the low resolution scan which tends to flatten the colours rather.. but it does give an idea.

sketches sm

desk 2      desk 3


Bee No 12: The Wool Carder Bee, Anthidium sp.

anthidium sp