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Pencil and Leaf

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Saturday 27 February 2010

The Wool Carder Bee and a little from Gilbert White.

I was trying to adopt a “less is more” approach for this post as I had written about the Anthidium, or Wool Carder bees when I painted Anna’s Bee back in December and included some of Fabre’s lovely writing about what he called “The Cotton Bee”.

But there is so much to know about these really attractive rather wasp-like little bees. So, I can do no better really than to send you over to biologist Blackbirds’s excellent Bug Blog, to read the posts tagged with Anthidium manicatum here. There are 4 excellent posts with some wonderful photographs and observations of behaviour and links. Here are just two photos: the male with his lovely yellow face and the shy little female.

Male feeding


female A manicatum

 Photos by Blackbird from Bug Blog.

This is a short quote from the post entitled “ Wool Carder Bee Watching 2: the Female

“The first time I came across Anthidium manicatum, the Wool-Carder Bee was after hearing it, not the usual humming noise bees make when flying, but that produced by a female's jaws cutting the hairs of a plant I had recently planted in the garden, Lamb's Ears (Stachys byzantina). Since then, this has been a plant that has not been missing from the garden, just because it is a sure way of attracting Wool-Carder bees.”

If you are interested in these bees and others there are many other wonderful posts in the blog.

The Anthidium family have many fascinating variations on the black and yellow patterning.  There is a very good page showing different types on the French “World of Insects” site, compiled by Alain Ramel here.

Gilbert White and Selborne

It’s inevitable that we who like bees will find the same references from the great Natural History writers or a nicer way of putting perhaps the ‘natural philosophers’. 
Blackbird has also included Fabre in the anthidium posts and this passage from Gilbert White’s summer observation from “The Natural History of Selborne” which, on a gloomy cold rainy day here made me smile!  His entry is from July 11th 1772.

“Drought has continued five weeks this day.  Watered the rasp and annuals well. There is a sort of wild bee frequenting the garden-campion for the sake of its tomentum, which probably it turns to some purpose in the business of nidification.  It is very pleasant to see with what address it strips off the pubes, running from the top to the bottom of a branch, & shaving it bare with all the dexterity of a hoop-shaver. When it has got a vast bundle, almost as large as itself, it flies away, holding it secure between its chin and its forelegs.”

But I came across this passage from a different  source .. from the lovely annotated site “The Natural History of Selborne,  Journals of Gilbert White” compiled by animator Sydney Padua. You can read entries by month and date which show Gilbert White’s simple observations from different years, here are 2 entries for tomorrow, the last day of February.

  • “1769: February 28, 1769 – Raven sits.
  • 1768: February 28, 1768 – Wet continues still: has lasted three weeks this day. Pinched off the tops of the cucumber plants, which have several joins.”

Reading back over passages from this wonderful book, which our family, as many others, has never been without, I had forgotten..( how could I!) about Timothy the Tortoise, and had a flash of memory about our much loved childhood tortoises.

The site is full of links to Gilbert White, the Journals, Selborne  etc. and one of my favourite quotes is .. in response to people writing to her and asking if their version of the book is valuable (there are thousands)..

“The best reply was my husband’s, to an email that read in its entirety, “I have a copy of “The Natural History of Selborne is it worth anything” — “If you read it, yes.”

Sydney, by the way is one of those excellent animators I was talking about yesterday whose drawing skills are so very good. See her animation site and wonderful sketches here.

The Painting 

I had a small dilemma. I want to paint the male bee as his markings are slightly more showy and wanted to show that rather intimidating spiked tail,  but I also wanted to include the wooly plant Stachys byzantina (Lambs Ears) which the bees use to make their nests. This could be thought of as misleading because it is the female who makes the nests but I was encouraged to read that the males also feed on Stachys flowers, and, of course, hang around the plant too in search of a mate. I initially thought about including a bigger leaf with a tiny drawing of the female carding.. but common sense prevailed.

I was able to use Anna’s specimen again too, but had a slight accident and lost half of it on the floor..after an hour searching with a torch I did retrieve it. Half a bee is not easy to find on a patterned carpet.  But anyway, here is the male heading hopefully  over to the Lamb’s Ears!

anthidium sketch sm woolcarder sketch small


The Wool Carder bee, Anthidium manicatum and Wooly Lamb’s Ear Stachys byzantina

woolcarder bee sm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP. 7'” square approx.

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Friday 26 February 2010

Celebrating The Slowness of Art

Over 2 years ago I wrote to Robert Genn, whose excellent artist’s newsletter I have been receiving for many years. I wanted to raise a tentative hand for slowness in art. I may have been out of step with current thinking because he did not reply. It was in response to the rise of the “daily painting” blog phenomena. The best daily painters are really wonderful and you can see exploration and enquiry in their work, but not all people work that way and I felt that some were being rushed into painting and drawing anything just to hit that daily deadline.

Some 5 years ago artist Grayson Perry wrote a piece which I had some sympathy with pleading for artists, galleries etc. to slow down a bit. You can read the whole article from Times online here.

“We are .. prone to being sucked into the idea that fast is somehow central to modernity. To be relevant is to be broadband-quick and dressed for next season………Picasso set an awesome precedent by knocking out three art works for every day of his life but Vermeer is held in reverence for a surviving oeuvre that wouldn’t crowd out the wall space in a squash court. So I ask gallerists and curators not to expect artists to churn out cool stuff like some cultural ice machine. Often I plan to see a certain exhibition only to find it has been superseded in the blink of an art historian’s eye by the next show.

If we all spent longer thinking, making and looking perhaps less bad art would get made, shown and seen.”

I am a great admirer of the “craft” of art, of the 10000 hours you need to put in to get something right. Not only do I admire its practitioners but it seems to be something I have to do. I enjoy ceramics, but the slow hand building of forms not work on the wheel. I like the cutting and preparing of lino blocks for printing, I will grind my pigments when I work in egg tempera after the laborious but satisfying preparation of gesso grounds. I have gilded and meticulously illuminated tiny things. I enjoy hand beading one tiny bead at a time. All this is slow work and does not make for a very exciting daily blog post. I know I am not alone and that many artists love this time spent engaging with materials and subject. There is a meditative and contemplative aspect to it.. that is much of its addictive charm.

A Slow Leaf 

My good friend John is taking some first steps towards fulfilling an ambition to be able to record his love of the natural world in drawings. Already an excellent photographer on his blog Nuncketest, John is charting his drawing progress publicly. If you go there you won’t see any flashy, slick, formula painting which often seems to clutter up galleries and great swathes of the internet but the intimate, quiet and thoughtful journey of someone who is really looking hard at things.

johns leaf John’s 25 hr leaf.

This “simple” leaf drawing was the result of ( a conservative, I think) 25 hours of work and observation. I am so glad John has recorded the time taken and I love that he talks about picking up “some comfort with my pencils and their sharpening” .

You can read more about John’s progress and his observations of the slow world of drawing. He records his thoughts and tutor feedback too. He is also telling you things that I want to put in every blogpost, that dog my steps every morning as I approach the drawing board.

“You know, sometimes getting started can be the most difficult thing. Whether it's coming up with the subject that feels right or a matter of confidence or even simply overcoming inertia, getting to the initial layout can be a chore. Once I get over that hurdle, I can settle nicely into a kind of meditative involvement. It's just that darned getting started...”..

The Slowness and Skill of the Animator.

I have always been in awe of animators. Their drawing skills are sublime. To be able to make a drawing move, to be able to bring pencil lines to life requires a combination of drawing skills, a total understanding of form and structure, an ability to see in three dimensions and then on top of that enormous empathy with, and understanding of “character”. To be able to convince us that something that started out as pencil lines has not only a life, but a personality we can relate to must be almost the pinnacle of creativity. Despite digital wizardry, it still is a slow art, and like many slow arts destined to be viewed in a second by a fast moving, image hungry public but the time and thought behind the work is staggering.

I look at lots of animators blogs.. one belongs to the brilliant animator Shane Prigmore who has just won an “Annie Award for best character design in an animated feature film” for the delightful “Coraline”. 

From his blog post March 2009 titled: CORALINE FACIAL ANIMATION !

“Henry Selick, knowing I was also an animator, asked me if I might Design , Develop and Test all of the Facial Animation (Expressions, Mouth shapes, Dialogue,Teeth) for every character in the film. How they will emote, and talk and hold their mouths and move their brows from every angle. I WAS ECSTATIC!! I did thousands of drawings designing the MASSIVE library of mouth shapes and expressions, and a SLEW of traditional animation dialogue tests to make sure everything worked just right.

Here is a VERY , VERY , TINY sample of just some of my facial animation design work.” 


You can read more about the fascinating process of getting this animated film into production on his blog, but you also see his beautiful drawings. this from a visit to the zoo, blog post “Back to the Zoo” in 2006. He says in his college days he was drawing “at the LA zoo almost every week for four years.”


The other day I heard a lady saying how very talented her daughter was at drawing.. said daughter wants to be an animator “ She can copy all the Manga characters really well ” said proud mother.. yes but can she draw I wanted to ask?

Illumination, a manuscript 10 years in the making

Another art form I have always admired is that of the illuminated  manuscript. My own very particular favourite The Luttrell Psalter a fabulous work of mystery, charm and humour made between approximately 1330 and 1340 and produced for the wealthy Sir Geoffrey Luttrell who lived just a few miles from my home. I have pored over and admired its contents since I was a little girl, its scenes of rustic Lincolnshire life imprinted on my mind from the pages of school history books (and yes there are bees!). In his excellent scholarly book on the Psalter “Mirror in Parchment”  Michael Camille describes the multi talented unknown artists, thus:

“Part alchemist, part cook and part botanist….Like the farmer, the illuminator had to keep an eye out for the weather which could affect his field of paint as easily as actual crops”

This is of a time when the artist was one of the “anonymous selfless medieval craftsmen, before the age of “art”.. and before the elevation of “artists” into some sort of special beings by the Royal Academy.

You can turn the pages of this wonderful book and others and consider their slow and careful production at the British Museum’s online “Sacred Texts” site 


What must be one of the most famous of medieval ploughing scenes with its doleful plodding oxen and dour ploughmen.. complete with strange being in the margin. from “Mirror in Parchment”  by  Michael Camille 1998. See also his excellent “Image on the Edge” 1993’

However, time spent does not equal good art. I am the first to know, to my cost, that  sometimes just five extra minutes can render something overworked and lifeless, and I love to see the hand of the artist in things, cold perfection is not what I like at all.

The beauty of a simple line drawing or of a confident brushstroke can be breathtaking but the casual observer may not know or care that perhaps 50 years or at least 10000 hrs of practice, experiment and careful observation may be its bedrock.

Why have I written all this????? ….well just to remind myself of the things I love,  and that being slow and spending 5 hours trying to get a bee’s face right is OK !

Wednesday 24 February 2010

The Delightful Stripy Ivy Bee; Colletes hederae,

I had discovered the genus of Colletes bees when I was researching for Deborah’s Bees back in the autumn. Known in the USA as Plasterer or Cellophane bees, these little bees are very pretty.  There are several species that can be found in the UK but it seems to me they are quite difficult to tell apart, perhaps more easily identified by the plants they are found foraging on. So it is with this one, the Ivy Bee, Colletes hederae. They just love ivy flowers. In the autumn when many other flowering plants have finished ivy comes into its own, and if you live in the south of the UK and have some ivy you may well be able to see these bees. Although relatively new to the UK (first recorded in 2001, see BWARS) they are beginning to extend their activities. 

Here is one of many lovely photos by Jane Adams from her blog post “Hunt for a Special Bee” written in September last year, from her excellent wildlife blog “Urban Extension.

 wimborne-by-millrace-behind-toyshop-25-09-2009-13-14-30Photo Jane Adams

Her mission that day was to find this bee…

“There was one particular Ordnance Survey grid square where they hadn’t been found. Grid SU. Near to Wimborne and near to where I live! So I went on a serious “Bee Hunt” while doing my shopping (well you have to do more than one thing at once don’t you?).”  Do read more…here

Jane eventually tracks down said bee at the back of a toyshop.. Well.. where else?  You will find another earlier post about the Ivy Bee on her blog here and lots of good info and links to other sites etc.

You will have to wait a bit to see one however as they are out and about from mid September until early November just to catch the ivy flowering season.

 A Quick Word about Ivy Flowers

I must admit I had not given ivy flowers much thought  before. In the garden at home most ivy activity is to do with chopping back in some attempt to stop it taking over both the house and the garden. But while I was researching all this I came across some super photos from botanist Phil Gates’ excellent blog “Cabinet of Curiosities”. This is from his aptly named postDrinking in the last Chance Saloon” published in October last year. Talking about ivy he says;

“To appreciate why its flowers are so attractive to insects, you need to take a really close look on a mild humid morning, when the disc at the centre of the flower is absolutely swimming in secreted nectar (see lower two photos) and newly open stamens are still full of fresh yellow pollen. It’s difficult to underestimate the value of this plant as an energy source for insects that hibernate, bearing in mind its wide distribution, the vast number of flowers produced on just a single plant and their long flowering period.”

ivyImage8 Photo Phil Gates

Just one of his photos from the post showing quite clearly the drops of nectar on the flower disc. Read more here.. There are some wonderful things on Phil’s North East UK based blog and his microphotography is stunning.

Lining the nest with Cellophane.

I was very curious about the USA name, the “Cellophane” bee. Both this name and the “Plasterer” bee name come from the ability of the females to line .. or “plaster” the walls of their burrows with a waterproof film which resembles cellophane. This curious substance is secreted from a gland in the head. It is important for this particular bee because the provisions that she leaves for the developing larvae is in a more liquid form than the usual bee bread, so this wonderful natural waterproofing keeps the cell walls intact and also protects both food and larva from damp and mould.

There is so much more to say about these fascinating bees. I will hopefully get back to them when I paint the Hylaeus, the white-faced bee which is from the same Colletidae family.

The Painting

Somehow I have managed to get a day behind my schedule. I have spent far too long reading and researching this last two days. I made a couple of quick sketches, and dithered for too long about the legs and wing position. I did say I was on a slow week this week but I have a May deadline and I think I need to speed up some of the decision making!!
One interesting thing about this bee is that what appear to be white stripes are in fact a fringe of very closely packed white hairs at the edge of each body segment. The size of my drawing is much to small to show that really, but it helps to bear that in mind when painting. I have given this bee some pollen which they collect in the “scopae” of their hind legs..which, if you are interested, is from the  Latin, used only in plural “scopae” meaning  twigs or brush.
sketch colletes 

These are quite hairy little bees and I try hard to get the hair (pile) quality right. The hair on the upper thorax is quite upright and tufty whereas the hair on the lower abdomen is silkier.. sometimes that is tricky.


 Colletes Hederae,  The Ivy Bee and Ivy Flower

colletes hederae sm

Watercolour on Arches HP size 6 x 8 inch approx

Monday 22 February 2010

Slow Down and Look..A Week of Celebrating Slowness..

My first week of dipping my toe in the manic buzzing twittering world that is social networking has been very mixed. I have found some good information and some awful dross. I am wondering if Twitter is really just a big community of snippet kleptomaniacs? Do they actually read what they retweet or just skim the headlines?

Since starting to research bees, a good six months go now, I have wasted hours being directed to countless sites that have very slight “information”, mostly copied from other sites, often without attribution and often completely and utterly wrong. I don’t want to rant or be a luddite but I really wish more people would just slow down and try to process the information before “publishing” it as fact.  I am as guilty, sometimes but I do try to be accurate. So this week I am slowing down, and am taking a step back and applauding the slow, the careful, the quiet and the considered. Hmmmm… after only a week this perhaps does not auger well for my new pushy self-promoting self does it? :)

The Charm of Just One Square Metre

One person who knows about taking his time is ecologist Dr  Patrick Roper who for the last six years has been studying just one square metre of land in his garden and recording some of his findings on his blog. He says, of his wonderful  project:

There is considerable fascination in the surprising variety of life in such a small area. If it were larger it would be regarded as a favoured place as several legally protected and nationally scarce species have been recorded.

It also raises the question of how well we know anywhere and is a living demonstration of nature's constant dynamic of one habitat changing to another and species coming and going, flourishing and declining.

In his recent post Tussocking” Patrick has taken a lump of grass to see what he can find there after a hard winter.

“This excision leaves a hole of course, but this might fill up with interesting things in due time.  Or you may even find something in it - I found a mauve plastic clothes peg, a survivor from the days when a washing line passed over the area.”

Metre tussock 017_thumb[1]

When I saw this I could not help making a comparison with Durer’s  “The Large Turf” (or as we more affectionately call it “The Great Sod” ). Reading about Patrick’s finds…

“..two garlic snails Oxychilius alliarius; several Entomobrya nivalis springtails; the bark louse, Lepinotus iniquilinus; two rove beetles, Stenus flavipes and Tachyporus chrysomelinus; two herb hammock spiders, Neriene clathrata;and a woodlouse, Trichoniscus pusillus..

….I found myself wondering what had been creeping in and out of the daisies, yarrow, plantains, dandelions, and pimpernels that Durer so carefully and sensitively painted.


In a delightful short BBC feature from “Springwatch” a couple of years ago here, you can see Dr Roper in his Square Metre.. (do have a look and see the sword swallowing grasshopper). He imagines that he may, one day, be found as a petrified remain, transfixed and crouching by the edge of his small world. That, I guess, is what slowing down can do. 

In this tiny place you can share the comings and goings over the “Great Plantain Desert”, follow an ant along “Troy Track”, ponder “The Waste”, catch up with what might be occurring down in “Volepasture” or who is hanging out on “Butterfly Rock” as was this crane fly, from A Spring Cranefly - Dicranomyia chorea  in 2007.


And Patrick must have the smallest pond in England. There are many other delights to be found in his various blogs. I was very pleased to find him.. not least because my languishing PHD project parallels so much that he has to say. Thank you Patrick! I feel it is time to shake the dust off the files and have another look.

This is not a quick fix read, you have take your time and be willing to get down to ant level and consider the small things in life, to whom that one Square Metre is plant city. Your rewards will be manifold if you do.  Just don’t tell me you haven't got time to slow down and look!.. just don't tell me that.  Stop talking, twittering, emailing, blogging, messaging, texting, slow down and just look.

I really did just that today, just for half an hour,  and saw a kingfisher fishing.

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Sunday 21 February 2010

Honey,Syrup,Bees and Lions .. It’s a Riddle.

It was Shrove Tuesday this week and I was thinking about pancakes, lovely pancakes with shimmering golden syrup and tart lemon juice. In the local supermarket here there is a small section, just a shelf or two, marked “Ethnic Foods”. Here are the Brit “favourites”, Marmite of course, some soon-not-to-be-Cadbury’s chocolate bars, cheese sauce mix in a packet (why ????) Birds Custard Powder, some curry sauces I have never heard of and of course glorious Tate and Lyle Golden Syrup.  I find myself rather liking to be considered an “Ethnic” here in the bland uniformity of suburban Orlando. It gives me a frisson of being slightly exotic as I reach up to take my ethnic food from the ethnic shelf.

I brought my lovely tin of Golden Syrup home and pondered the label.. and its motto. “From the strong came forth sweetness”. How well this has been imprinted on my mind over the years. I could almost draw that roundel from memory, with its (as I used to think when I was little) “sleeping” lion. There was always a tin in the pantry alongside the equally gorgeous Black Treacle, tins that I remember were always sticky. 

This old classic label seems to have been spared updating and I read on  Lyle’s site that “This distinctive packaging has hardly changed since 1885” The famous lion and bees logo

Samson and the Lion

But the whole analogy with Samson and the Lion is an odd one. Syrup is not honey, bees would never make a nest in a carcass, and poor Sampson seems to have been very badly misguided in his choice of women. It is, as usual, a bloodthirsty affair.

Samson had a hankering for a Philistine girl and against his parents wishes sets off to find one. On the way he kills an angry lion. On the way back from finding his love he sees the lion’s body and notices that bees have made a nest there. He eats some of the honey and takes some home to his parents. At the wedding feast Samson poses a riddle. “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” If the Philistine guests, all 30 of them, can solve the riddle in a week he will give them 30 new sets of clothes .. if they can’t he will ask for 30 sets of new clothes for himself. It’s an impossible riddle and the Philistines can’t possibly know the answer so they persuade the wife to turn on the tears for a whole week and wheedle the answer out of him. Then it’s all a bit grim, because Sampson has lost the bet and has to pay. He goes to a Philistine city and murders 30 people and takes their clothes to give to the guests. This is not a good move, as when he later decides to try again with the wife ( I can’t possibly think why), her father tells him,

'I gave her to one of the wedding guests', he said. 'But don't worry. She has a younger sister who is prettier. You can have her.'

( from a “simplified” version of the Bible story about Samson entitled “She Done Him Wrong” here) or, more eloquently, read, King James Old Testament, Book of Judges 14:14.

Poor Lion, Poor Samson, Poor Bees, Poor Foxes!!…. whose tails he sets fire to to ruin the Philistine’s crops.. and it’s all murder and mayhem from then on. 

So why this odd link to the syrup…

Abram Lyle was a firmly religious man, but it is not exactly clear what point he wished to make by adopting this motto..  from the Lyle website again :

Was he referring to the tin holding the syrup - or the company producing it?”

It’s a riddle just like Samson's.



Mr Lyle’s syrup and one of my bees…

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Saturday 20 February 2010

The Common Carder Bee and Lavender

Back in September while I was home in Lincolnshire I was beginning to take a bit more notice of the bees that were still around in the garden. There were the big bumbles and honey bees, but also lots of these pretty dainty gingery bees which I now know are Bombus pascuorum (L. Pascuum: of the meadow) the Common Carder Bee. They don’t look like the archetypal bumble bee because they are not so obviously striped and, like yesterdays B pratorum, are small and dainty.

pasc indentity sm

B Pascuorum: male 13 –14mm, left,  and Queen 16-18mm /worker 10-15mm right

I watched them, one sun drenched afternoon, picking their way through the last of the lavender flowers which I had been sent to trim. (you can see the dead heads on the right.) There were just a few remaining blossoms which I could not bring myself to cut down, much to my father’s bemusement and slight irritation! I left them, untidy stragglers that they were, for the bees.

my pasc lincs sept sm  

What I now know is Bombus pascuorum on the remaining lavender in Lincs in September.

The bee above is, I am pretty sure, a male, due to the long antennae and I can’t see a pollen basket either.  They are called “carder bees” because of their habit of using “combed “ bits of vegetation and moss to cover over their nests which they will make in tussocky grass or in old deserted animal burrows. Here is a delightful clip of a carder bee nest in the UK from Maria Fremlin on Youtube, along with some lovely humming sounds of summer. At last we have a warm day here today.



They are very hairy little bees, never losing the thick tufty gingery hair on their thorax. Some bumble bees develop  a definite bald spot here, as did my bombus hortorum,  see my post “A Forlorn and Balding Bee”. Again my source for nearly all my bumblebee info is from the excellent

I sat and watched them for some time buzzing round the lavender and saw how they have a very endearing way of  swinging their little front legs forward when approaching a flower, preparing to land or grasp the flower.. so here is my carder bee approaching the last of the lavender. 


carder sketch 2 carder bee sketch3


The Common Carder Bee, Bombus Pascuorum and Lavender

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Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP.  6 x 8 inches.

I realise that this is the last of the Bumble Bees I intended to paint for the exhibition, but of course there are others, and some very interesting ones, that we could see in the UK. So I just might try to fit in a “Shrill Carder Bee” or the recently arrived “Tree Bumble Bee” or even the Short Haired Bumblebee who is coming back to us from New Zealand.. you can read all about these at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

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Friday 19 February 2010

The Superb Bee Photographer, Eric Tourneret

If you have any interest in honey bees, honey, their history and the different traditions around the world you will spend hours looking at the fabulous site The Honey Gatherers which shows the photographs of Eric Tourneret, Bee Photographer and Photo Journalist. From different parts of the world, there are portraits of the keepers and honey seekers and of course the bees themselves, their life cycle and their history, this is a magnificent collection of photographs, all annotated.


“After a very poor harvest, the honey gatherers take off the heavy suits that protected them from stings” from the Cameroon section 

L'abeille bohème du Danube.

“Constantin Cazan has come to help his father Gheorghe during the two days of harvesting and extracting. The extraction takes place in the cabin of the converted caravan” from the Romania section

Butineuses en vol d’approche de la ruche sur un champ de colza.
Les muscles de l’abeille lui permettent de battre des ailes 400 à 500 fois par seconde pour atteindre une vitesse de 25 à 30 kilomètres/heure en pleine charge. Les butineuses font 10 à 15 voyages par jour mais celles qui sont spécialisées dans la récolte du nectar peuvent opérer 150 sorties en une journée. La durée de leur vie est directement liée au temps passé en vol pour le butinage. En été, une butineuse s’épuise à la tâche en cinq jours au cours desquels elle parcourt environ 800 kilomètres. 

“Foragers approaching their hive in a colza field.The bee's muscles allow it to flap its wings 400 to 500 times per second to allow a speed of 25 to 30 kilometers per hour with its maximum payload.” from Life in the Hive section

He is meticulous in his work, here is an extract from his site about how he took the above photograph:

….the photo looking directly at the three bees in flight took a full week of work in a colza field. A hive was set up in the area that provided the desired background and a false hive containing the camera was set up just beside it. The site was then encircled by studio flashes for improved lighting. Éric sought to capture an original shot by removing the real hive filled with bees to fool the field bees upon their return. After four days of fruitless shooting, he found it necessary to change techniques and asked a swarm-catcher for a batch of bees…

“I put the queen and a few bees in a cage in the false hive, and they immediately began fanning. The bulk of the swarm in another, smaller hive ten meters away began to stir and then, in one dense, airborne throng, the bees moved towards my camera. I blindly started shooting while doing my best to deal with the bees that were landing on the optics. Finally, after a week in this Camargue field and 4,500 shutter releases, the photo was in the bag. It surpassed my every expectation. Not a frontal shot of one bee in flight in its natural environment, but three bees dancing in the air before me.”

4,500 shutter this is the most beautiful stuff I have seen for a long time.

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Thursday 18 February 2010

Bombus pratorum: the Early Bumble Bee, Questing Queens, Nests and the wonderful Mr.Sladen.

Bombus pratorum ( L Pratum meadowland). Although known as the “ Early Nesting Bumble Bee” this pretty little Bumble Bee is not the earliest to be seen in the UK but usually one of the first. Also confusingly, there are considerable colour variations but a rough guide is that queens, workers and males all have orangey red tails, and the male has more yellow hair on the thorax and of course the wonderful yellow moustache. They are small , short tongued bees who cannot easily access the nectar from vetches, preferring the shallower flowers of the daisy family, dandelions and in the spring, willow flowers. They are described as having a characteristically rounded dumpy shape.

pratorum id sm

Left Male 11-13 mm: Right: Queen 15-17mm and similarly coloured workers 10-12mm

Queens and Nests

Normally active from March the big handsome Queen bees will be seen cruising for suitable nesting spots. She will not be too fussy about where she makes her nest and like many other bumble bees will take advantage of abandoned mouse nests, tangles of dead grass, empty bird boxes or old nests. I have seen big bumble bees meandering around in the spring in that seemingly aimless way, I realise now they they were just queens looking for good nest sites. Again, from the excellent (from whom I have learnt so much!)

“It is at this time that you most commonly find bumblebees straying into your house and behaving strangely. They will investigate any dark corner, flying slowly and sometimes even disappearing down holes, or even into pockets. They seem oblivious to their surroundings, and not at all interested in flowers.”

bee house sm

I found this charming little illustration from a version of the equally charming Anna Botsford Comstock’s “Handbook of Nature”. She writes;

“In early May one of the most delightful of spring visitations is one of these great buzzing queens flying low over the freshening meadows”

Bumble bee nests are not as regimented and conformist as those of the honey bee. They look like a jumble of bubbles, rather like the inside of a giant Aero, but are still beautifully and ingeniously crafted.

Karl von Frisch in Animal Architecture” describes two of his collection of nests;

I have in my possession a wagtails’s nest from a sheltered spot under the eaves of a boathouse. In its soft padded hollow I found not eggs but the nest of a bumble bee. An even more cozy abode was chosen by a colony of early bumble bees ( bombus pratorum) that made their nest in a basket of chicken feathers. when I opened it I found the feathers immediately surrounding the hollow place that contained the the comb, were stuck together to form a thick crust, which made an excellent insulating layer between the nest cavity proper and the fluffy mass of the feathers.. … I assumed that the material was wax or resin collected from trees…but wondered how the bees had managed to work such hard substances into the loose mass of feathers”

But thirty years later when Frisch had a chemical analysis made he was surprised to find this crust was made of sugar!

“The bumble bees had obviously used either nectar or thickened honey from their storage jars to moisten the feather so that the whole dried to a dense solid crust

Clever clever bees!

There are many illustrations of bumble bee nests but this is a particular favourite of mine. The nest of Bombus pratorum from the beautifully illustrated 1923 Die Europäischen Bienen by H Friese from excellent German wild bee site here

bombus pratorum

I have also been reading Frederick W L Sladen’s 'The Humble Bee' It's Life History and How To Domesticate It. People who read my blog will know how much I love the lyrical writing of naturalists from earlier days, just for the affection and gentleness which I find lacking in much modern writing. This beautiful piece about the quiet end of the Bombus pratorum queen had me in tears !

The End of the Old Queen

“In the case of B. pratorum, and probably of other species whose colonies end their existence in the height of summer, the aged queen often spends the evening of her life very pleasantly with her little band of worn-out workers. They sit together on two or three cells on the top of the ruined edifice, and make no attempt to rear any more brood. The exhausting work of bearing done, the queen’s body shrinks to its original size, and she becomes quite active and youthful-looking again. This well-earned rest lasts for about a week, and death, when at last it comes, brings with it no discomfort. One night, a little cooler than usual, finding her food supply exhausted, the queen grows torpid, as she has done many a time in the early part of her career; but on this occasion, her life-work finished, there is no awakening.

Thank you Gloria from Pollinators Welcome and Square Metre for posting this. More lovely writing from Mr Sladen soon.

The Painting

My Queen Bee however is alive and well .. I have not quite finished the background yet but again I have run out of time today. I am painting her contemplating a suitable nest site, her busy life all ahead of her..

pratorum sketch sm


Bombus pratorum the Early Bumble Bee.

bombus pratorum sm

Watercolour and pencil .. not quite finished.. I blame it on Twitter!

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Tuesday 16 February 2010

..and more Male Bees: Bees and Orchids film

Just after I had posted earlier, I received this link from my blog friend Brian from Green Mansions Compost.  It seemed to go so well with today’s post concerning all things male in the bee world. It’s a snippet from a fabulous Super 8mm nature film, “Symphony of Magic: The Wild Orchids in Israel”. This beautiful film was originally broadcast on the BBC in 1987. Then Doron Hirshberg, the cinematographer spent another 3 years adding more footage and recently transferred the Super 8 to digital. There is an interesting article about how he, along with the technicians at Cinepost a company specialising in post production and transfer, achieved it.. here.

This time, it’s not the bumble bee male but the comical long-horned bee male who is whipped into a frenzy by the deliciously furry and lifelike bee orchid. Just another astonishing piece of natural design and sly ingenuity on the part of plants.. Hmmm they could almost be human!


There is another lovely time lapse clip of the same film showing the growing orchids with a soundtrack reminiscent of those twirling ballerinas on old musical boxes..just beautiful, see here. I think the whole film will be available on DVD? Thank you so much Brian for letting me know about this. (Brian’s blog is a lovely mixture of bees, orchids, flowers  and food!)

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The White Tailed Bumble Bee and the Short but Merry Life of the Male Bumble Bee.

This is another of the Natural History Museum’s “Big Six” common UK Bumble Bees and very similar to B hortorum.  (I think some of these bees are very hard to distinguish from each other). Bombus lucorum has an all white tail (mostly)and the yellow stripes are a clearer more lemony yellow, than those of B terrestris.

lucorum ident

Bombus lucorum: male left and queen/worker right

The males may have varying amounts of yellow on their thorax too! Its all quite difficult for a beginner. I have chosen to paint the male. He has the most charming moustache and it gives me the opportunity to write a little about the male of the species. Males are much smaller than females and have no pollen baskets on the hind legs, which is fine as they don’t really have much fetching and carrying to do!


White tailed bumble bee by Steve McWilliam from

The Life of the Male Bumble Bee

“Short” really sums it up, but by turns frantic, in his search for a lovely mate, and lazy, in that he does no work to help with the colony. But then it’s hard to blame him as he really has little chance to contribute much. One of the last bees to emerge from the nest, the males are not even a twinkle in the Queen’s eye until after she and her workers have established the colony. As explains, the arrival of the males signifies the decline of the colony.

“The production of males usually signals the beginning of the end of the co-operation and organisation of the nest. The males drink the stores of honey, but do not forage to replace it. “

Once he has left the nest he is not, generally, allowed to return so must resign himself to a hedonistic life of chasing queen bees, drinking nectar and sleeping in flowers.  His sole purpose is to mate. (Although its seems that some more enlightened American bumble bee males,  a breed of “new bee” I guess, do lend a hand in incubating the young.) After the males have left the new young virgin queens will begin to emerge and the game is on.

Courtship rituals depend on the species but all the males will spend a considerable time on the look-out for a mate. Sometimes they will perch on some high vantage point and adopt a “knock ‘um dead” approach, zooming in and literally knocking the female to the ground, some lay sweetly smelling pheromone trails to attract a mate and some, abandoning all semblance of romance just hang around the nest entrance and pounce.. something like a night club I suppose.  Some people, noticing a sudden increase in bumble bee activity in the summer, become nervous and think the bees may have suddenly become more aggressive, but stinging you is the very last thing on the male bees mind! 

It’s interesting that different species of bees will patrol for mates at specific heights. Bombus lapidarius, terrestris and this little lucorum male will conduct tree top high romance while sylvestris and hortorum hang out nearer the ground. 

This patrolling behaviour was noticed by Darwin .. here is a passage from “Bees of the World” by Christopher O’Toole and Anthony Raw:

“He observed that several male bumble bees flew along well-defined routes in his son’s garden. He enlisted the help of his grand children in following them and it transpired that the bees flew along circuitous routes. Darwin’s notebooks show that he speculated correctly as to the nature of these circuit flights. He notes how several males of Bombus hortorum patrolled the same circuit and landed repeatedly  at the same spots, which he suspected were scented by the bees. He wondered of the bees at their landing places “Is it like dogs at a corner stone?”” ….

Nice to be Darwin’s grandchildren..if a bit dizzying..

The Painting

I decided to have a front  view of this little bee to show off moustache, perching on some leaves.  I was researching about how important willow trees were to bees, especially as they are an early nectar source for spring bees, and happened upon James’ blog Musings of a Surrey Beekeeper. He was feeling guilty about cutting back his willow.  Being a new bee keeper as I am a new bee artist, he was not aware of how important willows are either. But they didn’t make it easy for him:
”Willow has this uncanny knack of reminding you that it is a very efficient whip.You turn your face towards it and out of nowhere this little slither of willow just whacks you across the face and it stings – especially in the cold weather. It is almost like it is getting you back for something!” Read

It was the bees James.. the bees….

Anyway I included some willow leaves for James, and to appease his bees!

luc sk 2sm


The Delightful Little Bombus lucorum male.. on the lookout for a girlfriend.

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bombus lucorum sm

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Monday 15 February 2010

The Paper Wasp Makes it to Miami University .. Floria’s poster..

I was delighted when biologist Floria Mora asked if she could use the wasp drawing from Mischocyttarus Mexicanus Cubicola… Magnifico!" as an illustration for her final dissertation poster. Floria is a doctoral candidate at the University of Miami, studying the behavioral ecology of this beautiful wasp. Super poster and best of luck with the dissertation Floria..
My paper wasps seem to have become less numerous recently but I have just been out this morning to tell my little models of their forthcoming stellar appearance in the dizzying circles of Miami University’s research elite .. they said “Thanks, that’s nice but ask Floria if she can can warm the weather up a bit.”

See my other paper wasp posts: Conversations with Paper Wasps and More about Paper wasps: Gangling friends of the Gardner

For a larger version of this poster see here. This post now falls under the new category of “trumpet blowing” :)

wasp poster

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The (hesitant) Art of Shameless Self Promotion

I have mentioned Alyson Stanfield’s excellent Art Biz blog before. Last week, on a particularly bleak morning when nothing seemed to be going right, when, in the face of grim political, economic, humanitarian news, all artistic endeavours seems either pointless or fruitless, her latest blog post arrived.

“Sharing your art and ideas through shameless self-promotion”

It’s worth a read for any shrinking violets who hate the very notion of publicity in any way, shape or form. I am one.  It also came on a day when something very nice happened. It looks like my small bee exhibition in London will go ahead. So, what do I do??? Instead of dancing round the room and ringing up all my friends with delight I am filled with misgivings.

It’s a natural feeling for me, a complete and utter fear of failure, of letting people down, of not being up to the task, of suffering sniping remarks if a brushstroke is out of place and, worst of all, of the accusation of being “above myself”! I was brought up not to blow my own trumpet, to be modest and not push myself forward, that combined with the severest “inner critic” imaginable makes any sort of self promotion sheer agony.  

Robert Genn in his excellent Painters Keys also had a recent post titled Fighting the After Show Blues. It revealed how not only is there a terrible dip after a show, (will I even make it that far??) but also how many artists would rather stick pins in their eyes than attend their own show openings. How I have always so admired those bold and brazen artists I see at some shows, with their easy, self confident self promotion and seemingly total faith in their own abilities!

So now with the more “certain probability” of an exhibition, this little demon of self promotion is one I have to face. After all what is the point of having an exhibition if nobody knows about it and nobody comes? I owe it to the venue at least to try and drum up some support. But how can I possibly drag myself out of my lovely cocoon of anonymity? Honestly, if I could wear an invisibility suit at all times, (especially in front of a mirror) I would be a very happy creature. But I do have to try. Both Alyson’s excellent article and the article she refers to “The Art of Shameless Self-Promotion” from Nathan Hangen’s blog have some good ways of thinking about self promotion.

My personal pledge!!

So, having read and inwardly digested all the info and advice I am, from today, declaring that I WILL TRY to promote this exhibition. I have been dragged, kicking, screaming, biting and scratching  to Facebook, Twitter and Linked In,  and I WILL TRY! I can do it by telling myself it is for the bees, which I am concerned about and have developed a huge affection for in my research and drawings. I can do it for the venue, and I can do it too for all my very faithful friends and blog supporters.

I have joined Twitter and WILL be tweeting my painting progress and agonies and bee stuff at least once a day. Funnily enough it all seems to coincide with Lent ..I wonder if forty days in the Twitter wilderness will have a profound effect on me and my bees.. who knows!..

Share your success!!

I will.. I will!! I am hopeless, I neglected to tell you that the wonderful  “Granta” magazine used my illustration of the tea plant seedling for their holiday mailer last year mailer, that a lovely lady in Oklahoma will be using the cottonwood leaf drawing for her candle business, that I have a commission for a big painting of a croton leaf from Jeff who also bought the croton watercolours, that a charity in the Uk has asked about the possibility of doing a bee book together, that Floria has used my wasp drawing for her doctorate poster (see below)  and that YES… I AM HAVING AN EXHBITION IN LONDON IN JUNE!!!!!!

..Phew .. bites nails … and has to lie down…

So over the next few weeks I will have a little footnote to my posts.. “Successes and Failures on the Road to the Show”.
Stay tuned my faithful blog readers…unashamed trumpet blowing in next post.

( It’s also coincidently “Clean Monday” today .. a  day for preparing for your good Lent resolutions and, for all those who like things astrological, Saturday apparently brought “The New Moon which begins a creativity cycle for you today as it highlights your 5th House of Self-Expression” so the portents are good.. I will be casting my runes later.. :)..)


Sunday 14 February 2010

The Buff Tailed Bumble Bee and Clover

I had to include clover in one of the bumble bee paintings because the bees  are such crucial  pollinators for this important crop.  Bombus terrestris, the Buff Tailed Bumble Bee must be one of the most common bumble bees we see in the UK, recognisable (as you might expect), by the Buff coloured section of the tail and its two yellow stripes which are a deeper yellow that those of the B hortorum.

 terrestris ident

I still have the small disintegrating sample which I brought back from the UK last year, which has been useful. I sketched and wrote about it before, in regard to “nectar stealing” here.   I won’t repeat myself but will shamelessly re-quote this delightful extract about bumble bee behaviour from the wonderful, which seems quite apt, given the date and may well strike a chord with some.

“I get a huge number of emails from people asking me why their bees are sick, when in fact they are just males who have spent the day chasing queens and drinking nectar and then stayed out all night. Sometimes it rains and they get soaking wet, but they will recover once they drink or get warmed up by the sun. Sleeping inside a disk or bowl shaped flower is a good strategy for these bumblebees as research has shown that the temperature at the base of the bowl, near the source of nectar, can be as much as 10 °C higher than the surrounding air temperature.

Happy Valentine’s day all! I hope the sun shines on you. It’s damn cold here I can tell you and not the weather for either man or beast to be sleeping off a hangover in a flower..

Good news for Bumble Bees in the UK .

The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has just been voted the most worthy eco-project 2010, from the 'Live For the Outdoors' website  and its  Pembrokeshire path project, will now be funded with EUR30,000. Pippa Raynor, the Conservation Officer who will be working on the project explains what they will be doing:

“We will be creating a wildflower-rich habitat to support rare bumblebees along a new 10km path in the Pembrokeshire National Park. By connecting key sites, this attractive route through spectacular scenery will help prevent the national extinction of the shrill carder bee.

The project will benefit lots of other wildlife too; Wales, like the rest of the UK, has lost most of its wildflower grasslands, so creating and restoring these habitats will benefit the plants, butterflies, bees, birds and other beasties that depend on them.
It will also create a lovely place to walk, with flowers and bumblebees along the path that takes walkers, horseriders
and cyclists through areas that were previously inaccessible, thanks to the new route provided by the MOD.”

Sounds wonderful…Lucky  Pembrokeshire! I am looking forward to the possibility of seeing and painting a Shrill Carder bee, they are really pretty!

Meanwhile back to Bombus terrestris,

2 early sketches: In the second one I bent the clover head over a little more than the first.

bomb terr sketchsmterrest sk 2 sm

And in the end I tilted it over a bit more still… these are fairly substantial bees after all. I may add the leaves later when I look at the set as a whole. No more time left today!


Bombus terrestris: The Buff Tailed Bumble Bee and Clover

bombus terrestris sm 

Watercolour on Arches HP 6 x 7 inches

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Thursday 11 February 2010

Red Tailed Bumble Bee and Chives.

The beautiful and very handsome queen Bombus lapidarius, the Red Tailed Bumble Bee or “Stone” Bumble Bee, from its habit of nesting under stones or in walls. I sketched this one in November. This is the bee that Thomas Belt back in 1896 felt would be the preferred pollinator over B terrestris for the New Zealand clover crop, mostly because of B terrestris’ naughty nectar robbing habit. Belt also has a nice account of  B lapidarius’ bad temper. Read more in my previous posts The Beautiful but Grumpy Bombus Lapidarius and Floral Larceny and Nectar Robbing.

The queen is large and a glossy black with the flame red tail. The workers are much smaller with similar colouring and the males still have the red tail but have 2 yellow stripes on the thorax. 

 lap ident sm

male, left and female/worker right, from my ID sketches.

Because of its rather short temper it might not be the hot choice as an aid to pollination unless perhaps you intend to grow fields of onions, because although these are relatively short tongued bees they do like chives and the allium family in general.  They will spend time clambering around the flower head, which is comprised of many small florets, gathering a sip of nectar at each stop. 

 Chives Allium schoenoprasum

Surely every garden must have chives? When I was home in the summer they were very alive with bees and hover flies. But even without any interest in bees they are so pretty, easy to grow and wonderful to cook with. I would lift a few potatoes, simply boil them and serve them tossed with butter and fresh chives… delicious..


Image by V. J. Matthew from Shutterstock.

Good companions

Chives are also very good companion plants, sow them amongst your carrots, tomatoes and brassicas, to help not only to repel bad bugs, but improve both flavour and growth. I wonder how? I was also interested to read that they seem to help prevent scab in apple trees. The ancient unnamed apple trees at home are full of scab so I will have to send my father some seeds.

Just like cornflowers in my last post, you can add the florets to salads, for both prettiness and flavour, and of course if you happen to be plagued by evil spirits, hanging up a bunch of chives will do the trick.

The Wing Problem.

Deciding the position of the wings is always a problem. Sometimes they can cover too much of the body and therefore the pattern and colours of the bees. I don’t put too much detail in because they can look much too solid if you paint every vein.  As you can see I still had not decided, even when I started painting. There had been some of those nasty “bad painting” spirits around yesterday morning,  the ones that make your hand shake when you are poised over that tiny detailed bit, but after I hung up the chives everything went just fine, (I wish).

 lap sk sm  lapidarius sk sm 1

Finally, I settled for the forward wing position.


Red Tailed Bumble Bee, Bombus lapidarius,  and Chive  Allium schoenoprasum

B lapidarius, sm

watercolour and pencil on Arches HP, 6 x 8 inches

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Tuesday 9 February 2010

Bombus hortorum and the Cornflower

We are back from an unexpectedly eventful break, mainly because we, the non sports aware Brits had managed to arrange a night in Miami on Friday, not realising it was Super Bowl weekend. So South Beach was one big party and our visit to Jungle Island was completely fascinating as we had Jeff with us, who designed the whole ecosystem there. But it’s back to bees now, and number one for the proposed show.

The Garden Bumble Bee, Bombus hortorum.

I have written about this bee before, when I first started the bee project back in October. This is the Bumble Bee with the long face and the longest tongue. Their tongues may be 12 mm long, almost the length of their entire body, but can reach just over 2 cm when at full  stretch.  These long tongues help them to access the nectar from flowers with long tubular structures as in red clover, cowslips, foxglove, vetches and lavender. If you can watch these  bees you will see them unfurling their tongues as they approach the flower

Here from Shutterstock is a wonderful photograph by Niels van Gijn which shows what I am sure must be B hortorum about to make contact with a tall delphinium.

bee delphiniums 

This passage below explains a little about how they achieve pollination of such tall flower spikes and comes from Val Bourne’s excellent UK Gardening, site here.

“If you watch bumble bees visiting a foxglove, or any other flower spike, they always start at the bottom and work upwards. These lower flowers are rich in nectar and as the bumble bee diligently works up the spike, it eventually reaches flowers without any but which are pollen rich. Liberally dusted the bee goes in search of more nectar - so transferring pollen from the upper flowers of the first spike to the lower petals of the next it visits. Thus cross pollination takes place and seed is set.”

She has more information about bumble bees and bumble bee plants too which I shall be returning to in a future post.

The Cornflower

All bumble bees like flowers from the Knapweed family (Centaurea), which includes one of my very favourite “wild” flowers, the Cornflower, Centaurea cyanus. In its truly wild form it is a rare thing and I can’t remember when I  last saw it actually growing wild. At Plantlife, the UK charity working to protect Britain’s wild plants, you can adopt one and help prevent them from becoming extinct, however I am not sure how the wild species differ from the garden variety, which I would always include in annual sowings. 


Image by David Koloechter from 

It’s a fascinating flower with its beautiful blue colour, anthocyanin, a pigment which is  responsible for the red, purple, and blue colors of many plants. The  blue dye  obtained from the petals is edible, as are the flowers, which you can use to pretty-up a salad.  And, surprising to me, they are included in Twinning's Lady Grey tea which is favourite of mine… especially with toast and honey:)

The Painting

The main focus for this set of paintings is, again, on the bees. But this time I planned them to contain more than the studies I made for Deborah. So most will have a simple pencil addition of some sort.  I dithered for almost a day about this, how big, how small, how much, what position?  I am not fulfilling a strictly scientific brief here and never really could or would want to. My aim is rather to portray something of the essence and character of the bees and add something that relates to them. In the end I made a bigger gap between the flower and the bee than I had originally planned on my tiny thumbnail sketch. I prefer the separation and therefore, (following in my hero Mark Catesby’s footsteps) don’t have to worry too much about relative scale. I may add more later but will live with this for now. This is really a development of the first hortorum I painted but a slightly altered pose and more refined (and correct) detail.

The Garden Bumble Bee, Bombus hortorum, with Cornflower, Centaurea cyanus.

Bombus hortorum with cornflower sm


Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP.  6 x 7 inches

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