In early July, I was wandering through the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden looking for bees. I was joined by Bailey Wilson, a summer intern who is cataloguing the native pollinators that use the Garden. This Helichrysum splendidum bush was the perfect place to start looking at the different ways that bees use some of the Garden’s collections.
In our search for pollinators, Bailey and I gravitated to plants with the most grandiose display of flowers, as we thought these would receive the most interest from bees and other pollinators. We were perplexed when we saw how popular Helichrysum splendidum was with the bees. At the time, this bush had only a smattering of little yellow flower heads. Most surprisingly, the woolly leaves seemed to hold more appeal than the flowers. Bailey and I sat back and watched the bees flitting around for a while. Some bees landed on the flowers, while one specific type of bee would land on the leaves and use its front legs to rake little balls of wool towards its abdomen. I had never noticed such behaviour, and became quite smitten by this little, adorable bee.
It turns out that this quirky bee is a European wool carder bee (Anthidium manicatum). They are well known for scraping the hairs off a common garden plant, lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina). They use plant hairs to line their nests. I imagine the thick, woolly white hairs of Helichrysum splendidum make fine nest material indeed. Despite my infatuation with the bee that I photographed, it seems these are a bit of a nuisance. Originally a European species, these pollen generalists have spread to North Africa, Asia, and North America. Their range is continually expanding. The males aggressively defend their woolly plants as well as their females. I saw only females of the species, whose task it is to collect the hairs.
Helichrysum splendidum grows quickly and forms an attractive dense, silvery-grey mound. Compact flower heads bloom at the tips of branches. The inflorescences of Helichrysum splendidum are corymbose panicles of calathids, initially containing tight yellow buds. These papery buds open over a period of several weeks, revealing clusters of darker yellow flowers within. Like most Helichrysum species, the flowers are “everlasting”–they maintain their form and colour when dried. Many of the common names for this species refer to this quality. One example is the Afrikaans name sewejaartjie, derived from the words for seven (sewe) and years (jaar), representing the amount of time that it is believed the flowers last when kept in the house.