For seven centuries this little robin has been singing his heart out from the pages of the magnificent Macclesfield Psalter.
To all my faithful blogging friends and readers; May your robins be singing for you wherever you are.
It’s Christmas Eve and I know now that my bees have safely reached their destination and my client is happy. As a small gift for her I had decided to “just” make a little hand made book, containing prints of all the bees and a little info about them all. I, like any other artist and designer should know better. “Just” as a creative concept does not exist. So being pushed for time, dealing with an uncooperative computer and printer and rising panic, it was a bit of a rush.
Book making, near death by a thousand cuts.
One of the trickiest things is working out the pagination to make sure everything prints properly on double sided paper. I printed the pictures separately which was nice as I cut them out and “tipped” them in, like the old fashioned picture books that always had the colour plates separately printed. I seemed to cut and trim a million bits of paper and the odd fingernail… and then another million for the mistakes I made..sigh…more haste etc…yes, I know.
I found some paper with little gold cicadas to cover the boards, as close as I could get to bees in the time, and some honeycomb paper for the inside. Each page had to be creased 3 times to fold properly and finally, Japanese stab binding is easy, if you punch the holes big enough which I failed to do first time round.
I made a quick “spare” everyday book because the blue book is fragile and, of course, the second one was a breeze!! Labels too for the back of the pictures.
Just before final packing I took a snap of the book, with the original painting of the Blue Banded Bee, the labels for the back of the pictures, brushes and paint tubes etc to give things a bit of scale. The little book is 4 x 5.25 inches with 36 pages.
At the end of this 4 month project I am definitely feeling bee-reft (sorry) without my little winged companions, but there will be more soon and I could always make another book… maybe.
By the way, “Deborah” in Hebrew means “bee”… :)
Yesterdays Euglossa encounter was my first introduction to the extraordinary world of orchid bees. They are fascinating:
ORDER: Hymenoptera, Bees, wasps, ants and sawflies.
FAMILY: Apidae, Honey, Bumble and Digger bees
GENUS: Euglossa Orchid Bees
Long tongued, metallic coloured bees which are mainly found in New World tropical rainforests. They are called Orchid Bees because they pollinate over 700 species of tropical orchids, and some orchids rely entirely on these little bees for pollination.
Mixing the right scent
In general it is only the males that pollinate the orchids, not because they are looking for nectar or pollen, but for scented substances which they mix together to create their own alluring perfume. With little combs on their front feet they scrape the scented oils from the surface of the orchids and store them in handy pockets located in those big hind legs. The exact mix of fragrance seems to be quite crucial. A well scented male Orchid Bee sends out just the right signal to the female, demonstrating that he is a good forager and a strapping healthy and long lived bee. Get the mix wrong and you will be shunned.
To understand more about this wonderful symbiotic relationship, watch this excellent film from Science Online. It explains so very well all about the orchid structures and the bees’ part in the pollination. Nice voice over too.
A one sided arrangement.
The orchids which rely exclusively on Euglossa bees for pollination are the Catasetinae and Stanhopeinae sub tribes of Orchidaceae, which include the well known Mormodes and Coryanthes or “bucket” orchids. These orchids do not produce nectar and rely purely for their pollination on luring the male euglossa bees with their promise of top class perfume ingredients.
It seems however that the bees can manage just fine without them, and since Euglossa viridissima have been seen in South Florida since 2003, where these orchids do not naturally occur, researchers have realised that they don’t need the orchids as much as the orchids need them. The bees are able to find the exact needed compounds from leaves and other sources.
If you speak Spanish there is more interesting info and photos in Infojardin forum here. One of many excellent photo’s from Candle in Panama in the discussion forum.
Euglossa viridissima en Mormodes fractiflexa by Candle
Drowning for love
A very complex pollination strategy has been developed by the bizarre Coryanthes or “bucket” Orchids, strange orchids which look too much like bits of internal human plumbing for my liking. As I have said before I have never been quite sure about orchids, sometimes they are just too sinister. (Wikispecies has a good piece about them here )
Eric Hansen in his book “Orchid Fever” has a vivid description of what happens:
“The orchid secretes a powerful intoxicating perfume that the bee finds irresistible. At the same time, a specialized gland secretes a clear, colorless liquid that drips into the bottom of the bucket, forming a small reservoir.
Within minutes of the flower’s blooming, male bees in a state of great agitation swarm around the flower, near the bottom where the fluid-containing reservoir is located. They hover, seeking a foothold on the slippery tubular part that connects the bucket to the rest of the flower. Grasping the slippery tubule with their legs, the excited bees “bathe” themselves in the waxy perfume. Because the flowers bloom for only a few days, there is a mad rush among the bees to get at the limited amount of special scent. They shove and jostle at each other. Occasionally, a bee loses his footing on the slippery surface or gets knocked into the bucket when his wings collide with a droplet from the dripping gland.
Once inside the bucket, the unfortunate bee’s ordeal begins. There is only one exit – a narrow dark tunnel that leads through the front wall of the flower to daylight and freedom. There is no room to turn around, so the bee must wriggle and squeeze his way forward, stopping to rest many times. Just before he reaches daylight, he passes beneath two paired masses of pollen attached to the roof of the tunnel. At that precise moment, the pollen disengages and attaches itself on the back of the bee between his wings like a small backpack. This nightmarish experience may take as long as 40 minutes.
Once the pollen has been collected, the flower has served its purpose. The scent vanishes and the flower quickly wilts. Wet and disoriented, the bee pauses to dry himself. It maybe a day or more before perfume from a second bucket orchid will arouse the bee’s interest. On the bee’s visit through a second bucket orchid, a catch mechanism on the roof of the escape tunnel seizes the pollen backpack. In this way, the bucket orchid is pollinated, and with luck a seedpod will form.
Freed of his backpack and remembering his own procreation duties, the bee flies off to a display site where he conducts an exotic courtship dance. He performs fancy footsteps as a heady scent of perfume wafts from his hind legs. With such captivating artistic display and alluring scent, what female bee could resist the temptation to land and get better acquainted?
“Smithsonian horticulturist Tom Mirenda says that to them, the flowers' smell is as luscious as "five kinds of dessert baking at once." “
And here photo by Candle from Infojardin again, a blue Euglossa bee, with the two pollinia firmly stuck to its back ..I read that the plant will only allow the bee to escape after allowing time for the “glue” to dry.. Amazing..
See another full explanation and some very good diagrammatic photographs of the whole strange and wonderful process, (see below), from Troy Meyers’ Conservatory site, here.
You can learn how to pollinate your buckets if you are not a bee and all about the completely-new-to-me world of “Flasking”.
I think I have some more reading to do.
Just over a week ago a small, light as a feather, Fed Ex, overnight express box arrived at my door. If it had contained the crown jewels I couldn't have been more excited. Sometimes the best presents are the ones you are expecting.
The little box was from a very Kind Researcher in Southern Florida with whom I had been corresponding about the beautiful and exotic Euglossa Orchid Bees. I had tracked this Kind Researcher down via the internet and he couldn’t have been more helpful. His enthusiasm and delight in Euglossas is rivaled only by his enthusiasm and delight in “Lili” a nice little red beetle from Nepal (which has to be another story and another blog post.)
In the box, under layers of bubble wrap, snug and safely packed in little labeled glass bottles, complete with air and overnight honey water snack, were two beautiful Euglossa bees. “He” and “She” came with an additional supply of honey water, a dropper and full owners manual.
The little female bee just arrived.
Firstly these bees are just GORGEOUS. They are big and they are an exquisite shimmering blue green with dark, dark wings. They are full of character and I was completely entranced by them.
My simple plan was to simply take some photos and simply open the box and let them go. Everybody happy … well, except that is for the Invasive Species agency. Unfortunately for the bees and for me, and although they live happily dancing around the fire bushes in Fort Lauderdale they were not allowed to fly free here. In fact these bee are not supposed to be in Florida at all. But having crept in from Central America, maybe as unwitting on board stowaways or in nests in exported timers they have now established a handsome presence in the south. The repercussions of their arrival are as yet unknown. Now I do understand these concerns and have no desire to be the main culprit in an orchid bee takeover of Orlando’s leafy suburbs. Visions of these sturdy little, armour clad, bees, elbowing out the natives, however aesthetically pleasing, are not good.
But there were only two alternatives. The first unthinkable and unspeakable one involved the freezer, the other was to send them back, which seemed by far the best idea. However my Kind Researcher was away for a few days and so the Euglossas had to stay.
Bee Palaces and Bee Entertainment
So how does a bee novice entertain 2 Euglossa bees? I must say here and now that I hate things in cages. Birds and bees are things of air and sun and space and meant to fly. But these bees had to be contained. On day one, we had the photo shoot and they were confined to some large glass tumblers, but that's not much room for a lively bee, so I made them some more spacious homes in big plastic containers in an effort to keep them temporarily happy.
But how do you know if bees are happy? Like any good hostess I read and re read everything I could about them, what they liked to eat, what they liked to do. I noted, inwardly digested and committed to memory the list of flowers they liked. I did my 6 mile round trip to the Gardens to steal the exact exotic blooms from the butterfly garden. Long tubular flowers whose deeply hidden nectar reserves would exercise their extremely long tongues. I did this just for them.
I bookmarked the page that described the collection of mud and resin by the female for her burrow, and brought earth, water and hollow twigs in case nest building instincts were pressing. I underlined the passages in my Kind Researcher’s article about the astonishing scent gathering of the males from orchids and so I procured eucalyptus leaves, allspice leaves and a clove for him to play with, just to reassure him that I could find substitutes. I set up twigs and leaves and hiding places and of course an endless supply of honey water in little pots made from tinfoil. In short, I laid at their little bee feet the bee equivalent of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The responsibility weighed heavily on me. I fretted. Was sleepless and concerned. We had cold inclement weather which meant moving them around the apartment from one sunny spot to another. They loved the warmth and the sun, it seemed to cheer them up, just as it does us humans. Honestly, if these creatures had been the very last golden bees from the very last golden beehive from the very summit of Mount Athos, they couldn't have had more loving care and attention lavished upon them.
My rewards? Well to the casual observer not obviously substantial. They didn’t perform tricks or learn their names. The male who I christened Chris, spent most of his day loafing around, either adjacent to, or in, the honey water pot, drinking copious amounts and then “resting”.
His amazing long tongue mopping up a honey water spill.
“He” was however particularly endearing and stomped purposefully around his enclosure with his Cossack trousered hind legs. At night “He” found a leaf or petal to hang onto and ”slept” with his jaws firmly clenched and antennae at half mast.
But “She”, carelessly rejecting my sweet smelling flowers, my mud and hollow twigs, spent much time perched on the top most leaf of her palace garden, glaring at me malevolently or exerting huge amounts of time and energy trying to burrow out, biting fruitlessly at the plastic container and shredding bits of paper, which nearly broke my heart. Every bone in my body ached to lift the covers, open the windows and say “ Go …Fly..”
It was a long four days.
The day came for their planned return.. they were alive and well and easily coaxed into their little well provisioned travelling compartments. I took my buzzing box to the post office where to my silent dismay the Fed Ex lady turned the parcel upside down and slapped the shipping label on the bottom with a resounding thwack. “They are bees” Chris said on the way home “ They are fine upside down”. I slunk home and emailed the Kind Researcher, imploring him to lie to me if they arrived stiff and still in the morning.
According to his anxiously awaited email they arrived alive and kicking..
“I took them to a firebush and released them. The male flew off immediately while the female hovered in front of me for a few seconds before flying off.”
... Kind Researcher, you wouldn’t lie to me… would you??
Facts and a film about these enchanting little orchid bees tomorrow.
Bee No 17: The Orchid Bee, Euglossa viridissima
Watercolour on Arches 300 HP, image size 3 inches
I am getting very short of time as all 16 bees have to be in the post today along with a small book, luckily my painting is slightly ahead of my posting.
I was so caught up in discovering the “other bees” that I almost forgot to include a Honey Bee in this set. The trouble with writing about the Honey Bee is where to start and when to finish. Should it be about their incredibly organised society, their complicated navigation systems, the delightful waggle dance, or their gift to us of delicious honey.. and that’s without even considering honey bee lore, superstition and symbolism.
All that will have to wait for next year. Hmmm.. I am afraid that this bee thing will not come to an end at Christmas, as I now have a couple more projects to do and will be getting back to my bee books, cards and more paintings.
But I may take a short break.. unlike the Florida Honey Bees who I saw only yesterday, busy in the Rose Garden at Leu. With flowers still abundant and temperatures mild they carry on regardless. Northern bees are not so lucky and may have to overwinter in some very harsh conditions. Today I am reading of heavy snow in the UK and thinking about friends, family and bees.
Winter Snuggling for the Honey Bee.
Snowed up, frozen conditions are not good for bees. Apart from hoping for a warm break, warm enough for the bees to leave the hive to attend their own call of nature, there is the problem of keeping warm. Hives can be wrapped and insulated but the bees have to work hard at keeping warm. Here is a seasonal passage from “Winter for the Bee-Keeper” a chapter from Stephens Buchman’s excellent “Letters from the Hive”.
“Throughout the long cold months, the bees congregate in what is called the winter cluster, a tight sphere of bee bodies forty thousand strong usually located near their stored cache of honey. They are literally huddling to keep warm. Its called thermoregulation, and the bees are expert at it.
By eating honey then shivering their flight muscles without moving their wings they can raise their internal body temperature significantly. Revving their mini engines keeps not only individual bees warm but their neighbors as well. The temperature will not dip below 68 degrees F within the cluster. When bees in the outermost layers start feeling chilly they push their way deep into the centre, the warmest part of the cluster. Wouldn't you?”
A snowy UK beehive from the Derbyshire Daisybank Apiaries, in the UK here.
I know I have some beekeepers amongst my readers, I wonder how you are doing this winter? I am off to the post office now… all we have here is heavy rain…
Bee No16: the Honey Bee: Apis mellifera
Watercolour on Arches HP 300, image size 3.5 inches.
If you happen to notice some beautifully cut, circular holes in your rose leaves you may well have some Megachile bees in your garden. There will be no great damage to your plants and what some may find unsightly, I think is rather attractive. Also, when you know that the female Megachile is just using the leaves to wrap her little ones in, you would hardly begrudge her a leaf or two, would you? .
To help her this little bee is equipped with very strong chewing mandibles which she uses to bite through the leaves. It only takes one or two seconds for her to complete this operation.
Here is a sequence of photos by different photgraphers from the excellent photographic site Arkive: Images of Life on Earth, and the text is from “Bees of the World” by Christopher O’Toole and Anthony Raw.
“Just before the leaf fragment becomes completely detached the female vibrates her wings rapidly so she is already in flight as soon as the leaf is free. She then flies a short distance and lands on the ground, a stone or a tree trunk while she adjusts her load. If the leaf fragment is longer than broad she uses her feet to fold it lengthways, so she straddles the leaf with its convex surface towards her. She flies back to the nest carrying the leaf in this way.”
There she makes beautifully crafted overlapping nest pockets, a kind of natural origami pot with which she lines her nest.
“She sticks the leaf fragment together by crimping the edges of the leaves so that sap oozes out and this possibly with salivary glue acts as an adhesive.”
I am fascinated by the shape. These individual cells must fit into each other so the bee must know to taper them.
Here is a very nice description from an article by Louise Kulzer from the website; “Bugs of the Month” by Scarabs: The Bug Society, here
Actually, it's a bit more elaborate than just lining the nest burrow. Leaf-cutter bees construct several cells from the leaf pieces they collect. The cells are positioned end to end in a long burrow. Several circular leaf pieces form the bottom, then oblong pieces are placed along the sides to form a "thimble." This thimble is then provisioned with nectar and pollen, and an egg is laid in it. Then the bee cuts more circular pieces to close the cell. Once the cell is closed, the bee starts another cell above the first, until the whole cavity is filled. Like all solitary bees, the female leaves the nest after it is closed. The grubs fend for themselves on the nectar and pollen.
The adult leaf-cutter bee is smaller than a honey bee, dark, often hairy, with a prominent pollen basket below. Females are workaholics, and are a delight to watch because, being so intent on cutting leaves, they usually ignore a nearby observer! The leaf sections are cut with the mandibles, and the bee forms an arc with her head along the leaf edge to make the circular shape. (They remind me a little of an electric can opener, only with much more personality.)
ORDER: Hymenoptera, Bees, wasps, ants and sawflies.
SUPERFAMILY: Apoidea. Bees and some wasps.
The Megachilae are a huge genus of bee with well over 500 species. The most important North America species is the Alfalfa leafcutter bee Megachile rotundata which is used for alfalfa pollination. A monster member of this family is Megachile pluto. A female can reach 1.5 inches long.
photo by Stavenn from Wikipedia here.
My bee is Megachile brevis a delightfully smart and perky little bee. The body shape is unusual in that there is a definite upward tilt rather than the more downward curved body shape of other bees. These bees, like all of the female Megachile species carry dry pollen under their abdomen in the stiff bristly hairs called the “scopa” which in other bees is located on the legs. I have Sam Droege and Anna to thank again for their help.
There was only one way I wanted to draw this bee. She had to show her stripes and pointed abdomen and the pollen basket, so a side view to show the tilted body shape too.
A friend of mine described her yesterday as “very sassy”!
Bee number 15: The Leafcutter Bee, Megachile brevis
Watercolour on Arches HP, Image size 3.5 inches.
The headline that first caught my eye when I started reading about these bees, says it all..
“This Bee Is Gentle” …
A fact that is reiterated again and again, here is a quote from “The New Mexico Native Bee Pollinator Project” calling on gardeners in NM to help make “bee corridors”;
“Gardens for the more flamboyant hummingbirds and butterflies have become popular; now the bees need our support. There’s a fear factor with bees however, even among nature lovers. Honey bees sting because they have a treasure trove to defend, and a queen who lays all of the eggs. Not so with native species: the vast majority of them are solitary bees who ARE VERY DOCILE and do not sting unless they are handled roughly. When we become educated about our bees, a new understanding develops that they can be both safe and a delight to have around.”
This comes from the USA site Pollinator Paradise which has as much information about Blue Orchard Mason bees and other helpful native bees as you could ever wish for. It is run by Dr Karen Strickler who I have to thank for information, samples and pointing me in the right direction for my research on these bees.
Orchard bees have many champions and I have been amazed by how many suppliers are selling mason bee items, you can buy mason bee homes, which come in many different varieties from high rise blocks to bundles of straws; you can buy mason bee videos, mason bee online courses, and of course the bees themselves which come as little cocoons with full owners manuals. Blue orchard bees overwinter as dormant adults so you can watch them emerge in the spring ready to start work, For a comprehensive listing of suppliers of everything, go to Pollinator Paradise here. You will be there for hours..!
Osmia lignaria, (Photo by Scott Famous, Bugwood.org.)
So why all the fuss? Well this little bee is an ace pollinator of fruit crops and again, in face of the honey bee decline, the native bees are coming into their own. If you have a small domestic orchard.. apples, cherries and other tree fruit just 50 blue orchard bees will help secure you a good crop. (These bees are endearingly referred to as “BOBs” by the US Dept of Agriculture and there is a good article about them plus their possible predators here.)
BOB, on apple blossom from Karen Strickland at Pollinator Paradise
Although these are “solitary” bees, with each female making her own independent nest, they are gregarious and like to nest close to each other. They are opportunist nesters and will use old insect holes in wood, nail holes, and spaces in crumbling mortar. They are not destructive as often thought as they do not burrow into mortar, but just make do! Their name mason bee comes more from the fact that they seal their nests with mud.. so they make rather than destroy. They also like old hollow canes and can have as many twenty nest cells in one cane.
Jean-Henri Fabre, who I mentioned in the last post had hoped to find some Osmia nesting in the upright hollow reeds used by gardeners and farmers for fencing and supports…..from “Bramble Bees and Others” 1915:
I have often explored them in the hope of finding Osmia-nests. My search has very seldom succeeded. The failure is easily explained. The partitions and the closing-plug are made, as we have seen, of a sort of mud which water instantly reduces to pap. With the upright position of the reeds, the stopper of the opening would receive the rain and would become diluted; the ceilings of the storeys would fall in and the family would perish by drowning. Therefore the Osmia, who knew of these drawbacks before I did, refuses the reeds when they are placed perpendicularly.
Smart these bees..!
Drawing by Mike Kridle from Pollinator Paradise here
The Orderly Queuing of Bees.. with just a bit of nipping and shoving.
The tubular nests are fascinating and it seems that the size of the bee may depend somewhat on the size of the tube. The bee painstakingly makes each cell, bringing pollen and honey to each, lays her egg, seals the cell with mud, then moves on. The lava will eat the provisions, spin a silk cocoon and stay in this safe house until the spring. In a way that is still not understood the lava knows which way to face before it spins the cocoon, facing backwards would be a disaster as there is only one way out. I detected a problem here… if the first bee at the back of the nest develops first how does it get out when its younger siblings are still in their cocoons?
“Bees of the World” by Christopher O ‘Toole and Anthony Raw explains:
“Because of the linear arrangement of the cells ..the youngest bee emerges first, followed by the progressively older bees. However as may be expected the oldest bees in the deepest cells often awake from their winter dormancy first. An older bee is thus likely to meet with a still dormant bee in the next cell between it and the nest entrance.The problem is solved as follows: when the bee has bitten through the partition into the rear of the next cell it bites its way through the cocoon of the bee in front. If the occupant is inactive the bee nips the rear of its abdomen. This awakens the second bee which begins to vibrate its wings.. Nipping is repeated if necessary until the bee nearest the entrance starts to bite its way through the nest enclosure.”
It occurs to me that Orchard bee cocoons complete with housing would make a wonderful Xmas gift for the keen gardener and nature loving child.. and me… (taps Chris on shoulder!)
If you in the UK there is lots of advice in the Nigel Jones’s excellent “Solitary Bees” pages here. (interestingly Nigel appears to be a cat)
Bee Friendly Gardens
Dr Strickler has some good advice for creating a bee friendly garden here. Attracting these little bees is more about getting the right flowers at the right time, as they are most active between April and July.
This is a pretty bee, and another challenge as she is a shiny blue/black but also quite a hairy little creature. This is the female. The smaller male has a rather fetching moustache and longer antennae. I am saving him for later.
Bee number 14: Osmia lignaria, the very dainty Blue Orchard Bee
Watercolour on Arches 300 HP, image 3.5”
This lovely tiny bee is only 1/4 inch long. Augochlorella aurata is another one of the ancient family of Hallictid “sweat” bees but much smaller than my cheeky little Agapostemon from a couple of weeks ago. I am sure I would never have seen it in the wild but this bee came to me in a fascinating selection of native research bees very kindly sent to me by Sam Droege who works at the excellent Patuxent Wildlife Research Centre in Maryland.
The centre is an important international research facility for wildlife science, helping improve the understanding of native species and natural resources.
Do visit their comprehensive and fascinating website that has so much information about wildlife in general and the interesting history of the centre, here.
We may think that concern about our native species and agriculture is fairly new but back in 1934 the centre was set up under the direction of the appropriately named Mr. J. N. Darling,
“The original idea of the station visualized a demonstration area stressing the importance of the relationship of wildlife to agriculture.”
Sam Droege is, amongst other things, involved in the development of online identification guides to North American bees and the development of monitoring programs for native bee species. He contributes to the excellent Discover Life site who are also organising BEE HUNT next year… get involved if you can.
Some facts about the Augochlorella
ORDER: Hymenoptera, Bees, wasps, ants and sawflies.
SUPERFAMILY: Apoidea. Bees and some wasps.
FAMILY: Halictidae (Sweat Bees)
SPECIES: Augochlorella aurata
They are common throughout all of the USA and can be seen from April-October. They are nesting bees, eusocial and will burrow in rotting wood or well drained soil.
To encourage them, grow native Dogbane Apocynum cannabinum, Fleabane Erigeron strigosus, Slender Mountain Mint Pycnanthemum tenuifolium and the Goldenrods Solidago odora, Euthamia graminifolia.
In return they will pollinate your peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, and watermelons
The bees vary in colour considerably. Sam’s bee is a fugitive dark bronze, clad in gold/green armour, looking black until it just catches the light and changing with every different direction you look at it.. aurata indeed!
What’s in a name… just for those like me who are fascinated by the etymological origins of the beautiful words that we give our biological and botanical friends :.. Aug.. to enhance, Latin; Chlorella from the Greek word chloros meaning green and ella, the diminutive; Aurātus ‘gilded, golden’, perfect passive participle of aurō ‘gild, overlay with gold’, from aurum ‘gold’.
How very beautiful…
Watercolour on Arches HP. image size 3.5”
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.
These bees are very very sweet. They are small and hairy, the males proudly sporting these exceptionally long and beautiful antennae. Their name, as you might expect, comes from the Greek prefix “eu”= well + “keras” =horn, together meaning "well-horned". These are more ground nesting bees and it is only the males that have these exuberant antennae.
If you are wondering what bees use their antennae for, it’s mainly for the sense of smell. Their antennae have thousands of sensory cells, some used for touch, some for smell and others for taste. Some bees it seems use them to detect air speed and orientation during flight as well. Here is a wonderful electron microscope image of an Halicitd bee antenna.
from the students of Duke University here.
If you can see a bee clearly enough when it is foraging on a flower you will see it using its antennae, prodding about in the flower head. Also, erect antennae are a sign of alertness. A resting bee will have drooping antennae. (see Anna’s post here.)
ORDER: Hymenoptera, Bees, wasps, ants and sawflies.
SUPERFAMILY: Apoidea. Bees and some wasps.
FAMILY: Apidae. Bees.
TRIBE: Eucerini (Long-horned bees)
There are many different species of Long Horned Bees. Common in the USA are the Melissodes bimaculata which are lovely dark bees with 2 spots on their tail.
They specialise in the plant family Asteraceae, which includes asters, daisies and sunflowers. I will be painting one of these later.
These native USA bees are pollinators of the Cucurbita crops, pumpkins, gourds, and squashes, and growing in importance as the worry about the decline of the honey bee has made all agriculturalists, small and large, look again at the native bees and their invaluable contribution to food production.
After a hard morning chasing females, the male likes to rest in squash flowers in the afternoon and overnight. Like the Blue Banded Bee from the last post Eucera males in general like to form large batchelor get-togethers at night and the location may host bees from other species too. They often like flowers that close at night and you can sometimes gently touch a closed squash flower in the early morning and be rewarded with a little buzz. I emphasise gently,… dont squash the squash bees!
This bee I have drawn is Eucera longicornis which is found in Europe although said to be declining in the UK along with the wildflowers that it was associated with. Again the question is, what declines first, the plant or the pollinator? Remove one and we remove the other.
The bee is closely associated with the Fabaceae family such as Bird’s Foot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus; the vetches, Vicia cracca, V. sepium; wild peas, Lathyrus tuberosus, L. sylvestris; alfalfa, Medicago sativa; and the clovers, Trifolium repens, T. pratense. Have a strip of nice bean flowers to encourage these handsome bees and then you can spend a therapeutic and happy hour watching them come and go. I feel that “bee watching” time should be part of everyone’s daily routine.
Bee No 11: The Long Horned Bee, Eucera longicornis
Watercolour on Arches HP 3.5 inches.