Lambs' ears and woolly bees

Posted: Friday 7 November 2014
by Kate Bradbury

Stachys byzantina is named after its velvety, blue-green leaves, said to resemble lambs' ears. But of course I'm not growing them for how they'll look.

I have just planted up a pot of lambs’ ears. Hailing from Armenia, Iran and Turkey, Stachys byzantina is named after its velvety, evergreen blue-green leaves, which are said to resemble lamb’s ears. It’s often grown for its foliage alone, but it also bears pretty dark pink flowers in late spring and early summer.

Lamb’s ears are fairly easy to grow, thriving in full sun to partial shade and preferring nutrient-poor, well-drained soils. They’re ideal for growing in a large terracotta pot, but also work well when grown en masse in a dry border or gravel garden. They’re quite beautiful. But of course, I’m not really growing them for how they’ll look in my garden. I’m growing them for wool carder bees.

The wool carder bee, Anthidium manicatum, is a cavity nesting solitary bee. It typically nests in holes made by beetles in dead wood and the hollow stems of plants, but these days is often found using bee hotels. A solitary bee, females lay eggs in individual cells, which they leave with a parcel of pollen and nectar before sealing.

But unlike red mason bees, which seal the cells of their nests with mud, and leafcutter bees, which seal the cells of their nests with leaves, the wool carder uses the fine downy hairs of velvety leaved plants, such as lambs’ ears. Females comb the hairs off the leaves and bundle them together in a ball under their abdomen. They then carry this ball to the nest and seal each cell of their burrow, sticking the hairs together using saliva. They are gorgeous.

In summer I found a group of wool carder bees feeding on the flowers of black horehound, Ballota nigra. They are lovely bees to watch; they have quite a high-pitched buzz and the males guard the plants ferociously, chasing off rival males (as well as the odd honey bee) from their patch. They move pretty quick so are extremely hard to photograph. Mating seems to be a hurried affair – the males seem to land on the females while they are visiting flowers, whether they like it or not, and it’s all over in a matter of seconds. 

I’m sure the wool carder bees of Hackney were perfectly happy with black horehound, but I wanted to give them a little something extra. So they now have a choice of velvety leaves plants, plus a bee hotel to make their nests in. And the extra plants I’m growing for them, of course, will look beautiful.

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Talkback: Lambs' ears and woolly bees
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oldchippy 07/11/2014 at 21:13

Wool carder bees look like large hover flies then,so that's what I have seen in the garden.Just googled them.

sterelitza 18/11/2014 at 07:06

I have some of this plant growing happily next to a conifer tree stump which was cut down 2 years ago as it had grown too big. The soil there is poor but the lamb's ears plant is doing well. I had no idea that wool carder bees liked it and wish to propogate more plants from this one now to encourage more bees to visit my garden. Any suggestions as to how best to do this will be welcome. Many thanks.

Fairygirl 18/11/2014 at 07:51

Dividing is the usual way sterelitza, but do it in spring when everything's starting into growth and the new divisions will grow away well. 

juniebuttons18 28/03/2015 at 14:31

That was very interesting to read, thank you for enlightening me, I have plenty of lambs ears & a insect hotel, so I will plant the lambs ears under the hotel.

ladygardener2 28/03/2015 at 15:12

Very interesting indeed. I too grow Stachys byzantina and had never heard that the bees use the soft down.

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