Insects: Size isn’t Everything - just ask the Wool Carder bee

Monday, September 3, 2018

What the heck is that big guy doing on my flower!

Text by Gloria Z. Nagler and John W. Lewis
Photos by Gloria Z. Nagler

I had never heard of the European Wool Carder Bee (though I had seen them often, in retrospect) until a couple of weeks ago when I got home and saw, on my desktop, what I had captured with my camera: a small bee badgering a larger honey bee. Turns out there’s a back story, and thanks to the resources cited below, I can report that story to you.

I'm gonna get him!

Honey Bees and Wool Carder Bees were both originally Old World bees. Honey bees came to us in the early 17th century from southern Europe. Wool carder bees also originated in southern Europe, but didn’t make their way here until approximately the mid-20th century. The wool carder bee is so-called because the female gathers, and cards, plant fibers for her nest. She scrapes the hairs from leaves (a fave is Lamb’s Ears) and carries them to her nest bundled under her body.

Get outta here! Go! Go! Go!

Male wool carder bees, larger than the females but still only about half an inch long at most, are very aggressive about defending their territory, hence my photo opportunity!

He will attack other male wool carder bees as well as other pollinators. The wool carder bee has armature on the end of its abdomen (spiky protuberances), and the male can even body slam trespassers, as he appears to be doing here — in the third photo here you can see the wool carder bee on the back of the honey bee — useful strategy, for, as we see in the next photo, the honeybee flew away!

You'd better run - and don't you come back!

According to the U.C. Davis article, when the wool carder bees were first noticed in California, rumors went viral that the wool carder bees were decimating the honey bee population. Not so, report the university’s experts. The wool carder bees kill no more honey bees than any other rival of the honey bees.

Mine! Yum
Although I found the wool carder bee in Merrill Peterson’s new Pacific Northwest Insects guide, I have not yet been able to locate the bees in some other local guides — perhaps the wool carders are relative newcomers to our region. According to one source (Wikipedia) the bees are now found in New Zealand, too!

Sources: "Wool Carder Bee Not the Terrorist Some Folks Think It Is”, Ms. Kathy Keatley Garvey and the Department of Entomology and Nematology at University of California, Davis, 2011;

“Pacific Northwest Insects” by Merrill A. Peterson, 2018

Wikipedia on European Wool Carder Bees


Ian Taylor,  September 3, 2018 at 9:25 AM  

Fascinating! Thanks for the information and the terrific photographs.

Unknown September 3, 2018 at 9:56 AM  

Gloria, What a great photo-essay! Glad to see you set the record straight. Linda, former [honeybee] beekeeper.

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