Over the last few weeks I have been writing to various people to get some help with my bee paintings. I like to work from real models if possible and thought one way round this was to beg or borrow some spare bees from researchers. Anna from Anna’s Bee World who I have mentioned before and who helped me with the blue wasp identification has very kindly sent me a couple of samples, one of which was this beautiful Anthidium. It is wonderful to have such good reference. Thank you Anna.
Seeing these striking black and yellow markings, you could be forgiven for thinking this bee was a wasp. This is the Wool Carder Bee, Anthidium sp so called because they “card” the wooly covering from leaves to use as nest material. The female has five sharp teeth on her mandibles with which she bites through the downy fibers. She then rolls them into a ball, tucks it under her body and carries it back to the nest .
‘A female Anthidium manicatum commences cropping the woolly tomentum of a leaf ‘ from a series of photos by Neil Robinson BWARS here.
There is a very good article about Anthidium manicatum from Insectpix.net here
These bees are members of the Megachile family whose females carry pollen on the underside of the abdomen in the scopa (stiff hairs). This is quite different from other bees who carry the pollen on their hind legs. The male bees are territorial and armed with three spikes at the end of their abdomen. They will use these to deter other insects while patrolling their patch and keeping a lookout for females. They nest in pre existing cavities, often in old plant stems, laying eggs in their downy nests and providing pollen balls for the hatched larvae.
I am always struck by the lack of affectionate writing about nature these days. Books and websites tend to be either simply factual or rather vague. I generally try to find good writing from an earlier time where there is still that sense of wonder. It was nice to discover that the great writer and entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre shared my view!
He was criticised by his contemporaries for his gentle and colloquial style of writing.. here is his excellent reply:
“Others again have reproached me with my style, which has not the solemnity, nay, better, the dryness of the schools. They fear lest a page that is read without fatigue should not always be the expression of the truth. Were I to take their word for it, we are profound only on condition of being obscure.”
and here he writes about the Little Wool Carder Bee, which he calls the Cotton Bee:
We have but to see the nest of a Cotton-bee to convince ourselves that its builder cannot at the same time be an indefatigable navvy. When newly-felted and not yet made sticky with honey, the wadded purse is by far the most elegant known specimen of entomological nest-building, especially where the cotton is of a brilliant white… No bird's-nest, however deserving of our admiration, can vie in fineness of flock, in gracefulness of form, in delicacy of felting with this wonderful bag, which our fingers, even with the aid of tools, could hardly imitate, for all their dexterity. I abandon the attempt to understand how, with its little bales of cotton brought up one by one, the insect, no otherwise gifted than the kneaders of mud and the makers of leafy baskets, manages to felt what it has collected into a homogeneous whole and then to work the product into a thimble-shaped wallet. Its tools as a master-fuller are its legs and its mandibles, which are just like those possessed by the mortar-kneaders and Leaf-cutters; and yet, despite this similarity of outfit, what a vast difference in the results obtained!
Fabre wanted to try to see how the bees manipulated the wool to make the nest and so replaced their reed homes with glass rods. It worked for some bees but not others:
For four years I supplied my hives with glass tubes and not once did the Cotton-weavers or the Leaf-cutters condescend to take up their quarters in the crystal palaces. They always preferred the hovel provided by the reed. Shall I persuade them one day? I do not abandon all hope.
There are many different species of Anthidium and they have beautiful distinctively different patterns. I have spent quite a long time looking at the patterns and feel I really need to paint them all.
I was asked how I worked on these paintings, so this is my set up for the Anthidium. I will record a close up step by step if I can remember. I often intend to, for my own records, but normally get so engrossed that I just work from start to finish without stopping.
I have a little magnifying “third hand” which helps hold the bee in position and I used the back of an old picture frame as a small sloping board. After the initial sketches to determine the position, (in this case I really wanted to show off the beautiful markings on the abdomen) I draw the image lightly on the paper and then with the bee next to me, a good light and a lot of patience, I work on the painting in stages. I have 2 good W&N series 7 sable brushes sizes 0 and 00 and some cheaper synthetic ones for the initial washes. This painting took 5 hours once I had the image drawn on the paper. There are more details and more colours than show in the low resolution scan which tends to flatten the colours rather.. but it does give an idea.
Bee No 12: The Wool Carder Bee, Anthidium sp.