The bully bee


Young volunteers Genevieve Kiero Watson and Poppy Stanton tell the tale of the Museum’s resident Wool Carder Bee and their investigative bee work in our Life Collections…

A small guardian patrols its territory among the luscious bed of Lamb’s-ears that grow at the front of the Museum. This feisty critter, the Wool Carder Bee (Anthidium manicatum), is just one of the roughly 270 bee species that buzz around Britain. Having spotted this unusual hovering bee we seized the opportunity to identify, photograph and explore the species a little further.

The male of this solitary bee species is fiercely territorial, fighting off other males as well as any other insects it considers to be intruders. Techniques used in combat vary from skilful aerial hovering to ferocious wrestling. But perhaps its greatest weapon is a series of stout spines found at the tip of the abdomen. These are used to bully an intruder into submission, or even to kill it. In so doing, the male protects the precious supply of pollen for the smaller females which in turn collect it on stiff bristles on the undersides of their abdomens.

Females, being slightly less aggressive, are in charge of constructing the nests, which are built in existing cavities such as beetle holes. Hairs shaved off plants, such as the favoured Lamb’s-ear, are used to create the brood cells for the next generation.

Male Wool Carder Bee on Lamb's ear in the Museum's front garden
Male Wool Carder Bee on Lamb’s ear in the Museum’s front garden

The Museum houses many specimens of the Wool Carder Bee and our job was to pull out the data from each one to help with an ongoing online survey about this species. Although making friends with hundred-year-old bees was enjoyable, trying to comprehend the miniscule handwritten labels accompanying them was altogether more trying.

Every label explains where and when the bee was captured, who collected and identified it, and gives the reference for its current collection. All this on a slip of paper no bigger than half a stamp.

One of the Musuem's Wool Carder Bee specimens, circled, featured in a display of all 270 species of British bee in the Bees (and the odd wasp) in my Bonnet exhibition by artist Kurt Jackson
One of the Museum’s Wool Carder Bee specimens, circled, featured in a display of all 270 species of British bee in the Bees (and the odd wasp) in my Bonnet exhibition by artist Kurt Jackson

After recording data from 120 labels we began to find the grid reference of the location each was originally collected. This too was challenging as many place names have changed in the last hundred years. Ultimately, the information will be used by the Bees, Wasps & Ants Recording Society (BWARS) to improve the distribution map for the Wool Carder Bee.

Why not see if you can spot the Wool Carder Bee in your garden? Characteristics to look out for include small spines on the tip of the abdomen and lateral lines of yellow spots on either side of the abdomen. The bees themselves are about 11-13mm long for females, and 14-17mm for males. Good luck!



The Flame-Shouldered Blister Beetle – re-discovered at last!


One of Britain’s rarest beetles is the secretive, endangered Flame-shouldered Blister Beetle Sitaris muralis – belonging to the family Meloidae (oil and blister beetles). This attractive 8-14 mm long beetle was last found in Oxfordshire up until 1969, but then it was rediscovered in Brockenhurst, Hampshire in 2010 (the last New Forest record before that was in 1947) on a brick wall over 100 years old. However, they are seldom seen outside the nest burrows of the Hairy-footed Flower Bee Anthophora plumipes in old mortar [the entry / exit point looks rather like bullet holes].


It is not clear why this parasitic beetle is so rare as the host is widespread throughout Britain and common in the south in spring; the larvae feed on the bee’s brood.

Paul and Helen Brock have found the beetle each year since 2010 mainly in August, mostly dead with at least one apparently evicted from the nest (the latest finds though, on 20-21 August 2013 were alive). Others may be trodden on by passers by, as these clumsy insects fall to the pavement in a busy village site. The slightly brighter males have much longer antennae than females; both sexes have strange-shaped wings designed to enter a bees nest.


The bright orange is presumed to be a warning. In addition to sporting warning colours, during perceived danger such as attack by a possible predator, males curl up in defence, remaining in the position for up to a minute.


This elusive insect could turn up almost anywhere, but is most likely in southern England on a brick wall- so keep an eye out next time you are out and about!

Our thanks to Paul and Helen Brock for supplying the content and photographs for this post.