The Woolcarders have arrived!.

I am back to the blog after finishing a big commercial job which has re-kindled my first love, of pen and ink work.
It is the most wonderful medium and  I will be able to post more about the job when the website goes live.

Also this week I have had to swap the tiny brushes for house painting brushes to try to catch up with the last bits of decorating and make the Ugly Bungalow more like home.

In between, when a ray of sun struggles through the rain, I go out and see what is happening in Bee World, aka the Empty Garden. The rain has done us some favours, newly planted trees have been happy and general growth of everything, particularly the weeds has been.. well …exuberant.
And the garden is buzzing! Bees, hoverflies, and crane flies are everywhere.
It really goes to prove that if you plant the right flowers they will come.  And, joy of joys,  I have woolcarders!

The Wool Carder bee. Anthidium Manicatum

A day or two before I made the last post about the Mason bees I went out to look at the Lambs ears, Stachys byzantina in the garden and there to my complete amazement was a very handsome male woolcarder bee sitting on a leaf in a (fleeting) patch of sun. I had noted it down as 25th June.

Male Anthidium manicatum resting on Stachys leaf. You can clearly see the 3 fighting spines on his abdomen. He must seem to be a formidable opponent.

In the spring when I planted a tiny little new stachys plant, barely a couple of leaves, I had no expectation that woolcarders would come. In this new garden, nothing of much interest for bees would have been here last year, except the spring blossom of apples, cherries and hawthorn and we don’t have many well stocked gardens nearby.

I grew the stachys in the hopes that eventually these gorgeous bees might find me and here they are! So the questions are, where have they come from? Where were they last year? If there is no domesticated stachys available what would they use for there woolly nests?

In the occasional sunny spells I go out to watch them. The male is extremely entertaining and constantly patrols his patch of flower spikes. His life seems to be one of perpetual vigilance, for intruders into his airspace and for a visiting female.
He occasionally rests on a leaf but his current preferred lookout spot is the plastic cover of the pond pump. It gives him a good view of approaching enemies… or mates.

Resting on the plastic pump cover

He is always on guard, his life a heady round of nectar, sex and violence.
Along may come an unsuspecting bee or fly, innocently looking for food from the little purple stachys flowers and he is immediately up and into attack mode:…dart to vicinity of enemy, hover, assess threat and strike.
He is very fast.  The hover flies seem to be just an irritant which he chases away but the bumble bees seem to be his particular bête noir! I have watched him knocking poor unaware bumble bees from the flowers they are feeding on.

He will hover for some time before striking. His loud high pitched buzz is very distinctive and I am noticing similarities in sound, flight and general behaviour to the earlier hairy footed flower bees.
The woolcarder family seem to be relatively late risers and don’t much like the rain either. It was about 10.30 am today before I saw them and after even a light  shower they vanish..where do they go and I wonder where they spend the night.

( My bee friend and helper Alan Phillips told me that last year his male anthidium spent the nights sheltering in the toilet overflow pipe!)

Bees certainly do seem to emerge at different times of the day, the bumble bees, I know are out at first light and fly till dark. As for female nest building, I have yet to see any signs of them“carding” hairs from the leaves. Here are some intruders who make the most of his temporary absences.

An unwary bumble bee.

A little solitary bee who was given just a gentle nudge.


A glittering green fly.


A bee mimic who was chased away


as was this little hoverfly.

Here is another photo of the male taken this morning, showing his handsome white haired legs and yellow mandibles. They don’t seem to worry about me or the camera. I guess we are just too big.

This is, I think, the female.. they don’t stop  for long, which is wise really!.. so they are hard to photograph.
They are considerably smaller than the males with slightly different facial markings and slightly different spots on their abdomens.

For more information I have turned to my bee bible, the very excellent “Bees of Surrey” by David Baldock  and I am fascinated to learn that Gilbert White of Selborne in 1773 was asking the very same questions. His Journal entry for August reads;

“Apis manicata. This bee is never observed by me ‘till the Stachys germanica blows, on which it feeds all day: tho’ doubtless it had other plants to feed on before I introduced that Stachys

David goes on to write;

“the females forage almost entirely on labiates including selfheal, betony, black horehound,hedge woundwort and garden catmint”

My woolcarders also feed on the nearby labiates, including the big ugly motherwort and the salvias, but they especially love the very beautiful meadow clary, salvia pratensis, whose flowers are deep purple blue and which has grown quite well on this heavy clay soil. I hope it survives the winter.


Meadow Clary


I do have some selfheal, but have not seen it busy with bees yet, my betony is struggling to flower and my catmint has been decimated by the neighbours cats.. despite being surrounded by a twiggy fortress and a sonic cat scarer.. The things we do for the bees!!

It’s raining now and bee watching is over for the day. I wonder how long these lovely bees will be around and if they will perhaps make use of my bee house in some way?
Over the months watching the bees and seeing their very special relationships with plants has posed many questions. Every day there are more questions.
Some will be in the next post.
Now I am back to prettying up the Ugly Bungalow….. sigh…” lipstick on a pig” comes to mind, which has always seemed a bit unkind to pretty pigs.

“BUZZ” at “Nature in Art” and Wool Carders carding!

I was at Nature in Art near Gloucester all of last week and the weekend as Artist in Residence.

It’s a fascinating place. A lovely old manor house dedicated to the celebration of all things natural in painting, sculpture and ceramics, a good cafe and wild grounds.

Wonderful for wildlife. Michael Porter’s current exhibition “The Glance and the Gaze” is inspiring!

Artists in Residence have a studio to work in although I have been too busy talking to visitors to actually do much but I had my paintings and sketchbooks to show and talk about.
My good intentions to blog were thwarted by no internet access!

My paintings and sketchbooks and bees at the studio.

In between talking to the visitors I went out for a bit of bee spotting.
There is quite an extensive wild flower area with red clover, thistles and scabious which is full of bees and hoverflies. At the front of the building are some immensely tall, beautiful hollyhocks, which were busy with bumble bees and in the same border, a patch of furry stachys where to my delight a pair of the gorgeous woolcarder bees are indulging in some perfectly textbook behaviour.

Now please understand that this is the first time I have actually seen, with my own eyes, a wool carder bee carding. I was really quite thrilled to see  the little female come back time after time to chew the fibres from the undersides of the leaves. She curls round as she gathers them up then flies back to her nest with her ball of fluff, to use for nest building.

wool carder carding

The photo above shows the de-fluffed underneath of the leaf, and the bee busy trimming off the fibres. Nature in Art 2nd August. Photo Val Littlewood

I have never seen a nest but here from Wisconsin,  USA is a photo from the excellent Bugguide  by Ilona who found an Anthidium nest behind her  mailbox.
There are two photos of the fluffy white nest, it is quite extensive, a lot of work for this little bee.

woolcarder nest Ilona L

Female anthidium July 2010 by Ilona Loser:  Bugguide

The male meanwhile was, in turn, resting and patrolling….. resting and patrolling. He was constantly checking his territory, flying backwards and forwards between the catmint, just a yard away, where he was feeding, and the stachys leaves where he sits in the sun. He sat with his wings folded for a while before spreading them out at his sides in a very characteristic anthidium pose.

anthidium male bg

These big beautiful furry males are able to hover and dart very quickly. It’s a very distinctive flight pattern and you can see him tirelessly chase away intruding bees and hoverflies.
They seems to be a source of constant irritation to him.  I watched him suddenly zoom over and knock a trespassing bumble bee to the ground. After a tussle the bumble bee flew off apparently unharmed. It was all too quick to see if the woolcarder employed those fearsome spikes he is armed with.

A couple of days later after some heavy rain  I found the two bedraggled bees sitting disconsolately on neighbouring flower spikes. They were still, cold and fed up, just waiting for some sun.

resting anthidium
Wet  anthidium male.

It is making me wonder if the anthidium make pairs, I have only seen these two on this patch.
After warming up the male flew off but the female took a little more time, she buzzed her wings occasionally and when offered my hand she happily climbed aboard for a few minutes, warming up and spreading out her wings to dry.

I was with one of the visitors who was delighted to see her and as I held her up we could see her large jaws. Her tiny clawed toes were quite clingy, I have found that a cold wet bee is often quite reluctant to leave the warmth of your hand. It’s been a wonderful week with many lovely bee friendly people, and some new converts.

Amongst the visitors were the wonderful Bee Guardians from Gloucester.. more of them tomorrow! So thanks to Simon and all the staff. I am looking forward to returning next year.

Bees Deliver the Buzz at Heligan!

The bees and I are back home now after a brilliant two weeks at the beautiful Lost Gardens of Heligan.
There are so many people to say “thank you” to, the staff, the visitors and of course the Gardens’ bees who performed beautifully, and unfailingly, every day for the 2.00 pm Bee Walk.

We would start the walk staring optimistically at a small hole in the ground in a nearby flowerbed.


The tension was palpable.. would there be any bees today???

But the wonderful little Red Tailed Bumble Bee workers never failed me and flew in and out of their underground nest on cue. The tiny mining bees endearingly popped in and out of their holes in the Melon Yard and sometimes rested obligingly on the nearby stones.

bee head

mining bees sunning

Garden Bumble Bees, Common Carder Bees, Buff Tailed Bumble Bees and White Tailed Bumble Bees were all over the foxgloves, woundwort, poppies, brambles and odd things like dianthus and geums.

Bumble bees were climbing into the huge snapdragons, the big flowers swallowing up the bees almost entirely. They were all engaging and delightful…

carder bee on motherwort

Common Carder Bees seemed to particularly like Motherwort Leonurus cardiaca.


I watched fascinated as a big bumblebee gathered together groups of poppy stamens and “buzzed” them to release the pollen.

tiny bee on poppy

Whereas this little bee could only jump on one stamen and sway up and down. Very comical


Early one morning I found a little Bombus worker nectar robbing the pineapple sage flower.

I was able to show the holes at the base of the flowers to, sometimes, disbelieving visitors. Amongst the star performers were the very beautiful Anthidium manicatum bees, the Wool Carder Bee.  Males were patrolling a patch of woundwort and fighting in a quite spectacular way while the females just got on with their lives.

anthid male 3

This male at last took a break, the spikes on the end of his abdomen are quite awesome. He has cream hairs on his legs and the hairs on his  body give him a halo  of creamy white. A closer look shows the yellow spots and markings on the abdomen which vary from species to species and between male and female.

The smaller female with her head in a flower. I was wondering where the females were getting the fibers for their nests but the Latin name for woundwort is Stachys sylvatica (Hedge Woundwort) which must be a relative of their favourite plant which we commonly know as Lambs Ears Stachys byzantina The woundwort leaves have more bristly hairs but are certainly hairy enough I guess.


I said, saw, did and learnt so much in my two weeks there. My bee tent was never empty, even on bad days.

Hundreds of people passed through. We had garden experts, bee keepers, entomologists and general bee, insect and wildlife enthusiasts. There were novice gardeners, old hands, people who wanted just to share bee stories, bee sightings, nest discoveries and  flower or habitat suggestions.
I know I have convinced quite a few bee anxious people that our wild bees are harmless and charming. Stroking a ( I hasten to add, deceased) bee as usual proved popular.
We rescued grounded cold wet bees from the paths, which would sit happily on my warm hand to be admired by visitors.  We kept running out of bee and flower leaflets and again I sold out of books and the postcards.
My benign directive from Lorna the marketing manager was to inspire and inform and I know the show and the accommodating bees did just that.
The many comments in the visitors book said it all. It’s not really in my nature to post these sort of comments but maybe it’s time I did! Here are just a few.
From Cath and Maureen :

“Feel v lucky to be @Heligan at the same time as this exhibition, both educational and lovely to look at. Bought the book!

And from Monique:

“Exquisite and useful Bonne continue!”

And from Lisa:

“Fabulous, so good to have a knowledgeable and passionate person here. I  will be more attentive now. We must look after our bees! Thankyou!”

Vana and Peter came on the bee walk :“Really interesting show and walk , very helpful” they said, and later in the day rushed back with concern about the fate of some little ground nesting bees…
Be assured, the stones which will cover them will allow for gaps!!
Most overheard comment… “Oh I didnt know there were so many bees”

But…the biggest bee of the trip has to be at Eden… I took a morning off to go and see this inspiring place!

eden bee