To celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of the naturalist and nature writer, Gilbert White, I thought I’d send him an email.

Dear Rev. Gilbert,

I hope you’re keeping well and enjoying your birthday? I was reading a post yesterday on your excellent blog, The Wild Vicar, where you described seeing a ‘mystery’ bee on your garden-campion. I had to email and let you know that I’ve seen it too, and might, just might, have identified it.

Female wool carder bee collecting ‘tomentum’

Whilst gardening at the weekend a bee landed on a plant I know as lamb’s ear (fancy name Stachys byzantina). It’s funny, I wouldn’t normally have noticed it but even from a distance I could see this bee was acting strangely, and I instantly thought of your post. I crawled commando-style across the lawn to get a closer look, but I needn’t have worried the bee was too busy to notice me.

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.

Rev. Gilbert White

I hold up my hands at this point. I had to look up two of the words you used in your description; ‘tomentum’ (fluffy hairs on plant leaves) and ‘nidification’ (nest building) – hallelujah for Wikipedia!

The bee was stripping the tomentum from the pale green leaves of the lamb’s ear whilst carefully moving backwards and rolling the silver bundle under her chin (just as yours had). She then flew to the bee nesting box I’ve installed and dragged the material into one of the holes. So, you were right, they are using the tomentum for nidification.

As there’s an observation window on the side of the nesting box (you really should get one from George at Nurturing Nature, it’s right up your street) I was able to watch her. If she behaves like the red mining bees and leaf cutter bees, she’ll eventually lay an egg and leave a pile of pollen (for the grub to eat once it hatches) before closing the entrance with some of the hairs she has collected. It was fascinating to see inside her nest. 

After a bit of digging around on the internet I found a great organisation called the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society. Have you heard of them? They have some PDF information sheets on their website, one for a bee called Anthidium manicatum also known as… the wool carder bee. Bingo!

Interestingly I think I might have seen a male wool carder too. From what I’ve read they’re quite aggressive around plants like common toadflax, where the females feed on the snapdragon-like flowers and are known to see off other insects (and middle-aged gardeners) who are stupid enough to stray into their space. 

Male wool carder bee – resting on a grass stem

The male was quite a bit bigger than the female and flew straight at me. Initially I thought it was one of those annoying hornet mimic hoverflies, as it was quite chunky with yellow markings on its back. What a rookie error. I should have noticed it had four wings, instead of the two that hoverflies have, and had much longer antennae.

I hope the above is useful and that you have an enjoyable birthday picnic on the lawn this afternoon – I wish I could have been there. I look forward to reading your next blog post. If only everyone was as enthusiastic about their gardens, and their garden’s wild inhabitants, as you are!

With my best wishes,

Jane

PS Please send my best to Timothy!