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Sunday 31 January 2010

Biodiversity and More Bee Flower Notes: Flowers 10 to 20

It’s the last day of January and next week I have to seriously start my work for the “20 British Bees”. For this next project I will be making some simple paintings of plants/flowers too and writing about them as I go. They really do go hand in hand. The pencil and colour drawing of lovely “Lili” was a try-out for the bee series, as I will aim for a bit more of a sense of place to these next paintings.

Five a Day for Bees.

So here are some more flowers which bees like. I am learning that some they use for nectar and some for pollen and how important it is to keep a supply of bee friendly flowers as mixed as possible and spread throughout the seasons. Earlier this month there were some interesting findings from French researchers showing that, just like us needing our 5 fruit and veg, bees are healthier if they have a mixed diet of five different pollens. For a bee, foraging on just one crop is rather like us being fed exclusively on big Macs devoid even of the token bits of green stuff.  It’s a very interesting from the BBC.

David Aston, who chairs the British Beekeepers' Association technical committee says this:

"If you think about the amount of habitat destruction, the loss of biodiversity, that sort of thing, and the expansion of crops like oilseed rape, you've now got large areas of monoculture; and that's been a fairly major change in what pollinating insects can forage for.

As a consequence,  bees often do better in urban areas than in the countryside, because city parks and gardens contain a higher diversity of plant life. “

Go.. City Gardeners.. go!!.. my balcony is important. Elaine Hughes, expert gardener for the London Wildlife Trust says this!

“Would-be urban gardeners without a front or back lawn need not despair. Gardening in areas as small as windowsills or balconies is essential in that it creates sheltering areas and provides stop off points for insects and birds as they weave their way through neighbourhoods.”

from the Ecologist, on creating a Wildlife Garden here

I have a feeling that bees are something of a “fashionable” cause at the moment. I just hope the eco luvvies will not move onto something else too soon, because I don’t think reversing the decline in bee species will be a quick fix. Someone said to me the other day. “Oh.. I thought bees were ok now”. I don’t think they are quite yet.

Ten more Flowers

I did not sketch these flowers in any particular order or category,  just as I read about them. I should have been a bit more organised, but it will be nice to fill up the sketchbook, only ten more pages to go.  For flowers 1 to 10 see here.

Clarkia/Godetia                                       Borage Borago officinalis


Harebells Campanula rotundifolia              Purple Cone Flower Echinacea purpurea

Cotoneaster                                            Hawthorn, Crataegus oxyacantha

Kidney Vetch Anthyllis vulneraria              Sea Holly Eringium maritimum

Wallflower Cheiranthus /Erysimum              Cranesbill Geranium



Also, I have just received a wonderful pack of seeds from Hometown Seeds, with enough vegetables for more than half an acre and planting guides etc.   I am looking at the 6ft by 3 ft balcony and wondering where to start :).

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Saturday 30 January 2010

Signs of Spring: American Robins

I have been tidying up my work room today and found some sketches that I made last week.  I had been to Leu and sketched these birds, then had got sidetracked by bee stuff and forgot all about them. Also I had no idea what they were. 

It was a nice sunny day after all the cold weather and I heard the birds before I saw them. Flocks, of what seemed like hundreds, were wheeling round and round, screeching and chattering, something that I haven’t seen here at the Gardens before. The action appeared to be centered around the huge camphor trees which line one of the walkways and as I came closer I could see the birds were busy eating the little black berries. They then flew off to the nearby path to drink from a puddle of water and then rushed back to the tree again for more berries.

You can hardly see the Robin sitting on the branch, but you can see all the camphor berries!

bird in treesm

The ones on the ground were quite distracted while drinking so I was able to do a few sketches and could see they had reddish breasts and a white ring around the eye…

bird sketchessm jpg

I know that my USA readers will probably be aghast at my ignorance, but please don’t forget that I am a Brit, so the word “Robin” to me means a little chirpy little bird  that comes and  sits on your wheel barrow in the garden. These American Robins are big! and I now know they are members of the Thrush family  

Gathering for migration

But what is most interesting to me is that I realise now I was probably seeing these nice little birds getting ready for a northerly migration, stocking up and getting fit and fat, although some do seem to stay in their own neigbourhood over the winter. While I was researching I found this website: American Robin,Journey North where you can track the Robins’ journey north and participate in recording their progress. 

So, three little Heralds of Spring especially for my northerly, ice and snow bound, blog readers. I want you to know that the Florida Robins are looking well and will soon be on their way!!

am robins sm

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Wednesday 27 January 2010

Death by Jewelry? : Abrus precatorius

These pods with their innocent looking, pretty red and black seeds have been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks now. I had noticed the brilliant red dots shining out from the tangled remains of a decaying creeper which was twining over the chain link fence of the dog park opposite our apartment block. I had no idea what it was and was astonished to find that, insinuating itself amongst the benign ivies and maypops, is one of the most deadly plants in the world!

abrus pre

Abrus precatorius Flowers and leaves at Gulfstream Park, Florida. September 24, 2009 photo"Forest & Kim Starr" from Plants of Hawaii

The pretty leguminous vine Abrus precatorius (from the Latin precari to pray), has many names: Jequirity, Rosary Pea, 'John Crow' Bead, Precatory bean, Indian Licorice, Saga Tree, Lucky Bean, Giddee Giddee or Jumbie Bead, locally here they are called Crab’s Eyes. But its most fascinating “attribute” is that the hard red and black seeds, which are still used for jewelry in central America and Mexico, contain a poison which is really deadly. So much so, that just one thoroughly chewed seed can cause fatal poisoning. The poison is “Abrin”, a relative of “Ricin” which was used in London in 1978, to dispatch Georgi Markov, in the famous umbrella killing. Jewelry making accidents sometimes do happen when the makers prick a finger while handling the seeds, but apparently if swallowed whole the seeds are harmless.. Hmmm…

The ever useful, excellent and entertaining site Waynesword has this to say and gives more info about its deadly qualities.

In spite of their reputation as one of the world's most deadly seeds, precatory beans are certainly one of the most beautiful seeds on earth. They are sometimes called prayer beans or rosary beans and have been used for rosaries. Because of their remarkably uniform weight of 1/10th of a gram, seeds of Abrus precatorius were used by goldsmiths of East Asia as standard weights for weighing gold and silver. In fact, the famous Koh-i-noor diamond of India, now one of the British crown jewels, was reportedly weighed using seeds of Abrus precatorius.”

It’s another unwelcome invasive species here in Florida given category 1 status. A thorough explanation of the plant and its toxicity can be found here. I am left wondering what being so toxic does for the plant? Of course it will repel some animals grazers, but interestingly it appears that birds are not affected by abrin and they are largely responsible for dispersing the seeds. It is also another of those strange plants that quite likes being burnt. Seeds are readily available from seed suppliers, some of whom do not mention its deadly properties, but then as a funny article about the possibility of terrorist uses of Abrus says,

Somehow mankind has muddled through, managing not to exterminate itself with rosary peas” ………read more from the Register here

Whatever its problems it is lovely to draw, the shiny seeds contrasting with the dark twisted pods which have a thin papery lining. I think I may do a couple more studies and find out a bit more about this interesting plant which also has some medicinal uses… apart from the fatal ones of course!

Abrus Precatorius, The “Lucky” (for some but not others) Bean.

abrus sm

Watercolour on Arches HP 12 x 7 inches

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Monday 25 January 2010

Meet Nepalese Beauty, Little “Lili”, lover of the Air Potato.

The Potato Vine Problem

Back in July 2008 I wrote about the Potato Vine. I was intrigued by its little potatoes and thought it was rather elegant, with its beautiful heart shape leaves, but I do, now, have to admit that the Air Potato is a problem… this was my drawing.


It grows everywhere, dropping its little potatoes which root enthusiastically. New and vigorous plants spring up immediately and twist creep and crawl over everything. It’s a shame because in isolation it is pretty and as a member of the Yam family was initially brought to Florida as a possible food crop. However before you rush and and gather them up for a cheap meal it seems that the “uncultivated” ones here are poisonous. So, ‘cultivation’ must breed out the poison. (I am tempted to draw a hopeful analogy to the human race), Good Air Potato identification and info here.

What prompted this post was that on Saturday, the 8th Annual Air Potato Raid was held, in Orlando. This year their goal was to involve over 500 volunteers and collect 10,000 lbs of dreaded potatoes to try and bring the whole spreading menace under control. It must seem like a hopeless task! However there may be hope, winging over the horizon, direct from Katmandu, in the shape of this pretty little beetle. Lilioceris near impressa.

LILIOCERIS near impressa, A Nepalese Leaf Beetle

I know about this beetle because the kind researcher who supplied me with the gorgeous Euglossa bees which I drew before Christmas, also sent me 3 beautiful little specimens of Lili.

lili photo
This little beetle had been the subject of his research into the biological control of invasive weeds that threaten natural areas here in Florida, and it seems that this particular species of Lilioceris feeds only on air potatoes. There are other Lilis who are partial to peoples lily bulbs, but they are the different, Lilioceris Lilii, very similar looking but with a red thorax.

This is from Florida Newsletter published by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which also has some other very interesting info about invasive species.

“Air potato
In 2008, the host range testing of Lilioceris sp., a leaf beetle discovered in Nepal as a candidate biocontrol agent for air potato (Dioscorea bulbifera), was completed. This research, which began in 2005 by the USDA-ARS, demonstrated the beetle’s host range is exceptionally narrow. It can develop only on air potato. This research also showed that a single beetle can consume, on average, almost three square meters of leaves during its life (almost one square meter during its larval development). Taxonomists have been unable to give the beetle a name other than Lilioceris near
impressa, but research is underway to identify or describe the species. This beetle has just been petitioned to the USDA-APHIS (TAG) for review, the first step in obtaining permission from the USDA-APHIS for its release in Florida
. “

So perhaps it will be good news for the native plants that are being strangled by the air potato. I know there is always much justifiable concern these days about introducing any alien species but I am sure that rigorous testing has been done, and maybe here it is a case of “set a thief to catch a thief. “

Lili from Katmandu

I don’t think I have ever drawn a beetle before, so needed some sketches and my best magnifying glass. Lili’s feet are incredible. The legs end in two rounded slightly hairy pads, from the centre of which springs a long curved toe which has two tiny claws on the end. The carapace is russet orange with a pitted surface, not really spots as such, thorax and head all black.

sketch sm

Thinking about the pose and leg position…..sketch 3
Almost there…..

sketch 4

So, this is an imaginative drawing of “Lili”, Lilioceris near impressa, on a very small Air Potato Leaf, Dioscorea bulbifera, contemplating her extensive playground and the prospect of an endless feast of Florida Air Potatoes.

my lili sm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP image 12 x 10”

** update 25th Jan .. Lili has a tentative go ahead..

The petition to release the beetle has been approved by the Technical Advisory Group for Biological Control of Weeds with the condition that it be identified or described as a new species. The study to do this is ongoing by scientists at the Smithsonian. After the study is done, an Environmental Assessment has to be written, then publication of the proposed release, followed by a public comment period. Perhaps the release will be 2011.

….hope for the beleaguered hammocks of Florida soon.

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Friday 22 January 2010

Flowers need Bees and Bees need Flowers:Bee Flowers 1 to 10

I have been out the last couple of days enjoying some sunshine but also seeing the terrible frost damage at Leu Gardens. I know it will grow back but seeing so many brown and leafless trees and shrubs is quite depressing. There are not many flowers and fewer bees, but I always seem to find the indefatigable honey bee. Here is one enjoying one of the few camellias that survived the frost.

honey bee

who was then joined by a tiny ant..

bee and ant

When writing about bees at some point you do have to think about plants too. They all need each other. I have started keeping a notebook about the flowers that bees really like, so when I do eventually have a garden again I can plant a bee heaven. There are of course many bee friendly flowers and I have a long long list, but here are the first ten, very rough, colour notes in a small moleskine.

Knapweed Centuaurea and Californian Poppy Eschscholzia

Cornflower Centaurea and Fleabane Erigeron

Dandelion Taraxacum and Forget-me-not Myosotis

Globe Buddleia Globosa and Grape Hyacinth Muscari

Hollyhocks.. Alcae (a real favourite with me) and Indian Blanket Gaillardia

They are simply notes, but useful quick reminders for me and could be developed into a nice complementary series to the bees… if I ever have enough time.

USA readers !! Flowers for your bees.. Scott at Hometown Seeds is offering a discount of 10% to blog readers “By entering the coupon code “thanks”, 10% will be reduced from the total cost of any order. The code will be good through February 28, 2010.”

see Survival seeds, or Wildflower seeds..

Get some veg for the family and flowers for the bees…and let some of the veg run to flower, the bees will thank you!

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Thursday 21 January 2010

The Curious Horn Faced Osmia Bees

While making some more notes on British bees, I was interested to read more about the funny little horned, female Osmia rufa. The Osmia family in general are a really delightful bunch, not only hard working pollinators for your fruit trees but gentle too and ideal bees to keep in the garden.  I painted Osmia lignaria, the Blue Orchard bee for Deborah but that particular species is hornless.

The “horns” in question are two small protuberances which can be seen (if you get very up close and personal with the bee) just above the mandibles. It seems they are used for shaping the mud which this clever little bee uses to build her nests, hence the common name “mason bee”.

The male O rufa on the other hand sports a fine white “moustache” and has longer more elegant antenna than the female. sketch

I also remembered  that I had a specimen of Osmia cornifrons which Karen Strickler at Pollinator Paradise had kindly sent me along with O lignaria.This bee also has the curious horns on the female’s face. It’s not a native USA bee but was introduced from Japan in 1977 to help with orchard pollination. With the help of a magnifying lens I was able to make this drawing of the female cornifrons’ head complete with horns.

Osmia cornifrons face


She is much hairier than her rufa relation.

Then a couple of studies of the Osmia rufa… cute male head at the top and female at the bottom. .

Osmia rufa faces, male and female

 rufa heads sm

The female also has huge jaws which she uses to collect mud for the nest and presumably to make the nests too. I don’t have time to write more today but will return to these nice little bees very soon with more info and more drawings….

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Sunday 17 January 2010

Mischocyttarus Mexicanus Cubicola… Magnifico!

The splendidly named little paper wasp, just as I saw it on the wall, turning to give me that curious unblinking stare. They have been very busy with the arrival of warm weather but, as I am not a paper wasp aficionado, I am not entirely sure what they are doing. There is quite a bit of jostling and shoving and lots of  staring, which is what wasps seem to be particularly good at.

Close up these insects look weighty and armour plated when in reality they are airy creatures, floating delicately around the bushes like tiny leggy fairies doing good deeds in the garden. 

I, as much as anyone, am quite nervous about wasps and, until I started drawing them, was rather repelled by them. But as you study them, their intricate and beautifully designed body structure, a waist and a length of leg I would die for and their handsome beautiful marking, you just have to learn to admire them.  And that is before you even start to wonder just how they build those fragile and extraordinary nests.

A couple of stages of the work;

wasp startsm wasp half smwasp almost sm desk


Viva la avispa magnifica!

paper wasp sm

Watercolour on Arches HP.. wasp size, a huge 5.5 inches. (I am really glad they are not this big in real life.)

15th FEB: Update… Thank you to Floria Mora for including this little wasp on her doctoral thesis poster. She has been studying the behavioral ecology of this wasp as a model system to discover how plastic their colonies are to the environment and social interaction. For a larger version of this poster please see here.

wasp poster

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Friday 15 January 2010

More about Paper Wasps, Gangling Friends of the Gardener

I have been reading more about paper wasps today and had no idea there were so many species. When I first tried to identify mine, I was looking, mistakenly, under the Polistes genus. It was at wonderful that I eventually found my little friends in the Mischocyttarus (pronounced "Mis-k-sit-ar-us") section. Mine are Mischocyttarus mexicanus cubicola. There are 2 other species, Mischocyttarus Navajo, and Mischocyttarus flavitarsis (Western Paper Wasp) which can be seen in the USA. They are tropical wasps so are confined to mainly Southern parts, but I have to say that my little colony has survived these recent Arctic temperatures very well.   

The majority of paper wasps seen in the USA are Polistes genus wasps and the two are superficially very similar. The main difference is the mid section between the abdomen and the thorax (which is curiously called a petiole .. as in a leaf stem).  In the Mischocyttarus wasps this section is considerably longer and thinner.

Both wasps construct the distinctive umbrella-shaped, chewed papier-mâché nests which hang by one or more stalks from man made or natural structures.

Good for the garden!!!

They are very beneficial insects to gardeners because they are natural pollinators of flowers and prey on a variety of insect pests, including caterpillars, flies, and beetle larvae. Think natural biocontrol. The  adults only feed on nectar, giving their insect prey to the developing lava.  Yes, they will sting but are not considered aggressive and will only do so if sorely tried. Even my nose to nose camera work didn’t upset them too much.

This is from a very nice supportive Paper Wasp article at Bug of the Month written  by Louise Kulzer:

“Paper wasps have a special liking for umbelliferous plants. Having chewing mouthparts, they are not able to reach far for nectar, as bees can. Umbels have shallow nectaries, and make suitable fast food stops. Dill and fennel are especially good, but parsley, parsnip or carrot gone to seed are useful too. So do yourself a favor this fall - let some umbels flower, and be prepared for the gangling paper wasps to grace your garden.”

And there is a good piece on natural pest control  from “Small Farm Permaculture and Sustainable Living” with this accompanying photo and some extra words of wisdom.

“Treat all spiders with love and care and provide rocks or logs around the garden to encourage the crawlers”


How to pose a paper wasp?

I have done quite a few more sketches today and have been thinking about how I want to pose this wasp for a colour study. It’s an interesting problem because the way I position it will influence how it will be perceived.  I want to show the beauty of it but perhaps not the threatening side. In the bottom drawing below, the lowered head and thorax is a predatory pose, as is the front faced stare.

 sketch 2

so I considered more of a top view which shows off the beautiful markings and disengages that baleful look.

 pencil 4 sm

Here I turned the head to give a bit more movement and a nicer line and I was almost sure I was going to paint this one .. so made a few more detailed sketches.

sketch 5 sm

sketch 6sm

However , my final decision was made late this morning after I had been to pay the wasps a visit. I watched a wasp land on top of the wall and turn its head to look at me. This seemed a perfect pose , looking round rather than full on. I don’t think there can be much upward movement in the head of a paper wasp because of the hard carapace of the body, but the turned head just gives the wasp a little more personality and some, not too threatening, eye contact. I like to see the eyes of things.  By nature they seem curious and watchful creatures and very aware of your presence.

wasps finalsm

And I did get a couple of head studies done. I am fascinated by the eye shape.

pencil headsm

wasps hds

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