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Wednesday 28 April 2010

The Girdled Mining Bee, Ribwort Plantain and Carl Doddies

The slender and pretty little Girdled Mining Bee, Andrena labiata, is another bee you might easily mistake for some other insect. It has the distinctive red orange girdle and the males have a small white patch on their face. It was brought to my attention by Jane at Urbanextension Blog who, oddly enough, as I was writing this yesterday posted two new photos on Flickr here  …bee telepathy! In her email to me last night she says this;

“I saw two or three males patrolling the flower bed that I saw them in last year. The males are so lovely with their white faces. I don’t think the females will be around for another week or so (didn’t see them until the 8th May last year – and all the flowers are behind so hope they find something to feed on –we do have some Germander speedwell that is out but the Star of Bethlehem is nowhere near )”

Jane’s photo of the Girdled Mining bee on Star of Bethlehem last year in Dorset 8th May.


It just makes you wonder what impact the late spring flowers may have on  early bees?

Her mention of Speedwell is interesting because I have read this is a favoured flower of the A labiata. From an aesthetic perspective, it chooses a flower which shows it off very well, the orange/red set nicely against complementary blue. I am presuming the colour perception of its predators is not quite the same as ours.

The Painting and Ribwort Plantain

I have drawn the Girdled Mining bee perched on the top of a ribwort plantain head. Plantago lanceolata. Yes, I know, another annoying garden weed, especially in lawns where their relentlessly tough stalks pop up again and again and can cause apoplectic heart failure in mowers who like a perfect green sward.  But it is a good nectar source.   In her book, “A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them” from 1998, American writer Sue Hubbell confirms that bees will forage from plantains, but records this concerned neighbours comment,   

‘“ Your bees must be starvin’,” lamented a friend in town. “ Why, they was workin’ them little bitty stems in the lawn. Poor things. Just stems!”’

I have always been fascinated by the delicate bobbly heads with their quivering  stamens and of course we used to play the silly child’s game of Carl Doddies which I wrote about here, back in Jan 2008. 

Carl Doddies sjpgIt was said to have originated from a " beheading" game played in the Jacobite times, the names derived from Bonnie Prince Charlie, "Carl" and King George, "Doddie".”

You each have a long plantain stalk and try to knock the head off that of your opponents. It should probably be renamed “mowers revenge” although that would mean nothing to small children except the ones perhaps who have to earn their pocket money by mowing the lawn ( she says, from years of experience).  I am not sure if there is an equivalent game here in the USA, but it gave us a few hours of fun and there were really no shortage of plantains.


So spare the weeder and the weedkiller and let your plantains bloom, feed the bees and of course in the unlikely event of offending a bee you can use the leaves to soothe their sting!


The Girdled Mining Bee..on the lookout for mowers, small children, Jacobites or  possibly even a mate..

gmb sm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP 8” x 8”

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Tuesday 27 April 2010

Pretty Muscari and some other Spring Bee Flowers

There are some flowers that always seem to be around and very much taken for granted. I cannot  remember ever living in a house in the UK that did not have a few of these odd little flowers. They come under the category of “What do we do with the straggly leaves” plants,  along with daffodils and bluebells. They don’t obligingly retreat underground but loll and flop about turning yellow and a little bit slimy. I was always so delighted to see them and then just wanted to tidy them up and would have a day of “folding” up the untidy leaves.

But, if I ever had any doubts about them, I would now plant them like a shot, because I now know they provide a rich source of early food for insects of all kinds. To see who likes them go to Blackbird’s excellent Bugblog and read the entry Grape Hyacinth Visitors. There you will find photos of the bees and butterflies who are visiting.  Below, for a change from bees, is Blackbird’s photo of the beautiful Peacock butterfly feeding on Muscari armeniacum.


She also reminds us to plant in drifts or at least in large enough numbers to make it worth while for bees and other insects to stop.

They are very forgiving little plants and  reward neglect by spreading around on their own without very much encouragement at all. 

There are different  varieties and colours  and when we lived in Spain I was delighted to find the exquisite Muscari comosum growing wild on the mountain side near El Chorro gorge. Its deep ultramarine-going-on-purple colouring colour is stunning and I made a few drawings of it which are in storage somewhere.. but below is a photo taken Hans Hillewaert in Mallorca from Wiki here.


The little onion like bulbs of this particular variety are still eaten in parts of the Mediterranean and are on the curious “Ark of Taste” list which is “an international catalogue of heritage foods in danger of extinction maintained by the international Slow Food movement.” You can go their website here to see what food is endangered near you.. sadly nothing so far in Florida!

In Italy the bulbs are called “Lampascioni” and considered a delicacy. Katie Parla in her sumptuous Parlafood blog based in Italy has an entry here which describes eating them “fried and then soaked in orange honey” (you can’t quite escape the bees can you?).


I had made a small painting of this pretty flower for my bee flower set, but, as I have now decided to change the format, it’s one on its own, but still rather a favourite of mine.

  muscari 1 sm

Muscari watercolour 4 x 4.5 inches. Arches Not


Eight Spring Bee Flowers.

After more deliberation about the flower notes I decided to rethink them and include the written notes on the sketches. This kills two birds with one stone as it were, and simplifies everything…which is good.

primrose sm cherry blossom sm
Primrose                                          Heavenly pink Cherry blossom

crocus sm current sm

Crocus                                               Flowering Currant

pear muscarism 

Pear blossom                                     Muscari  of course !

forget me not sm willow copy

Forget me not                                    Pussy Willow

There are, of course, many others but these will suit a variety of bees.. more bee flowers soon..

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Friday 23 April 2010

Bees and Herbs

Bee and herbs seem to go very well together don’t they?  Together they conjure up the  quintessential summer afternoon, sweet scents and the gentle hum of bees, tea and cakes, and a comfortable chair in the sun.
I don’t think that bees have a real preference for herbs,  they are only really interested in the pollen and nectar content, but three things that sit very happily together are bees, honey, herbs, all linked somehow with wellbeing and feeling good. Herbs for health, for just smelling nice, for making our food more delightful, honey to sweeten our lives and just a lovely word in itself and bees of course for making the others possible.

The Herb Society

The UK Herb Society has a Bee Aware Campaign this year and Debs Cook, (see also her wonderful herb blog Herbal Haven) their tireless webmaster and herb/ bee enthusiast has posted some excellent herby/honey/bee related articles, and also provided this great photo for the cover of their March magazine.


See these pages and more for garden/bee/food ideas.

Herbs To Attract Bees Into The Garden
Honey & Herbs - Syrups & Infused Honey
Honey & Herbs - Pills & Lozenges
Honey & Herbs - Elixirs & Electuaries

and I am delighted to say they have a page about my BUZZ  exhibition so here is something I wrote for them about bees and herbs …

It's interesting that many of the flowers that delight the bees also delight us and the connection between bees and herbs is well documented. Rev. L L Langstroth, apiarist clergyman and teacher who was considered the Father of American Beekeeping, said "If there is any plant which would justify cultivation exclusively for bees, it is the borage”, and borage is just one of many herbs that they visit.

The tiny solitary bees like umbelliferous plants so angelica, fennel and dill will attract them. The bunching together of all those tiny flowers into one inflorescence makes them easy for small bees to access. Dill and fennel will also attract pest eating lacewings and ladybirds too. Daisy like flowers and of course the humble dandelion have similar closely bunched flowers which give bees a nice big banqueting table making the next nectar and pollen stop a very short hop. Mints, sages, thymes, basil and oregano will all attract bees too but of course you must let them flower. I have read that letting herbs flower will reduce the intensity of the flavour but maybe there is a compromise somewhere or just grow twice as many! In fact you can also let a few vegetables run to flower too, especially early salad greens. Bees, like herbs, like sunny sheltered spots. Strong wind can blow little bees off the flowers, even though they do have 6 feet.

Another great advantage to having bees around is just the sound of them! I have a lovely memory from last summer of a particularly drowsy afternoon, sitting in the sun and watching the Red Tailed Bumble bees and the Carder Bees drifting amongst the lavender and chives. I painted both of them for the show.

Their site is fascinating and I hope to be attending their conference this year in June which will focus on bees ….and if you are a member you can knit this bee! image

I am going to join! I just love what they do. Everything about herbs presses all the right buttons for me!


Bee Flowers,  Herbs

Today was my deadline to get the first eight flowers roughed out and assembled on Photoshop, just to see what they will look like framed.  There will be a few changes but it’s a start! As always I am in two minds . The designer in me wants a more stylised approach like the chive.. yes  the pink lollipop is a chive :) ….the naturalist in me wants them to be more as you might see them growing.

herbs sm

I also decided to paint an additional B. Terrestris, just to get the much loved herb Comfrey into the show. (It’s is one of the above too) The structure of its curling flower head is very beautiful and elegant as are the two rabbits ear leaves that curve up from the stem.. 

comfrey sm


Bombus Terrestris and the beautiful curving flower head of Comfrey

Symphytum officinale

terrestris and comfreysm

Watercolor on Arches HP 8”x 8”

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Wednesday 21 April 2010

Bee Flower Notes.

To accompany the bees in the exhibition I am hoping to include some notes about the plants they are associated with and which they rely on for both nectar and pollen. Visual notes are better than written notes, however sketchy, and they will add a bit of colour to the show. Really these will be just larger versions of the flower notes I was making before, here.

This, I know, will not be the most riveting post but I use my blog as a sort of online notebook as much as anything else. Writing things down does help me clarify my thoughts and then I can get on, which is rather important as I have been dithering about it all for 5 days now.

The dilemma has been about how to categorize the flowers. I have 6 large frames available and so can divide the flowers into categories.. but how? There are so many possibilities. I tried many different combinations from colours to locations to families. But in the end I thought of what I would like to see as a non specialist and what I would find interesting and useful.

So , the Flowers

One very important thing for bees is to keep the supply of nectar and pollen running through the year so three frames will have:

1 Early Season plants x 8 including crocus, hawthorn, snowdrops, forget me nots.

2 Mid Season plants x 8 including stachys, dead nettle, foxglove, scabious.

3 Late Season plants x 8 including aster, ivy, sedum, sunflower.

Weeds and wild flowers are very important, so one frame for those:

4 Weeds and Wildflowers x 8 including dandelions, thistles, and cow parsley.

Herbs are another important group and of course are just the loveliest plants to have in the garden, so one frame for herbs:

5 Herbs x 8 including the king bee plant borage, chives, mints, rosemary etc

Which leaves me with one….. this could be the edible plants that need bees for pollination or it could be trees.. not sure which yet.

There will be 8 small flower sketches in each frame and although that seems an awful lot to me to get completed in time, in the bee world this is only a fraction of the plants they use. There are many lists of bee friendly plants on the internet and it can get very very confusing, but there are definitely a few firm favourites.


The notes will be sketchy, not highly finished and detailed like the bees, but I need some practice because it means going from super smooth paper to a “not” finish and from the 00 sables to the wonderful but completely different Isaby wash brushes.

W&N series 7 00 sable at the top and two bendy Isaby wash brushes at the bottom. They are capable of beautiful expressive thick and thin brush strokes.

The technique of using them is quite different. With the small sables you “brush” your colour on and they have a springy tip with some resistance which helps you paint very accurately. With the wash brushes you float the colour on and use the tip to guide the paint. You cant “ brush” with these as they have no resistance. They just bend and stay bent, as you can see, but they do have the most beautiful tip and hold lots of paint.

So here are a couple of trials which may or may not make it to the show.

willow Pussy Willow, a vital early Spring source of nectar and pollen and don’t you just love to brush the willow catkins against your cheek?
















lavender smand Lavender.. important for Summer and early Autumn pollen and nectar and of course is gorgeous alone for its colour and heavenly scent..

These are 10 x 3.5” on Arches Not.

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Tuesday 20 April 2010

The Siren Call of the Crying Limpkin

“So called because of its awkward gait, it is also known as the Crying Bird because of its distinctive call, a piecing wild sounding scream or wail which it makes especially at night. The noise was so disturbing that the early Florida pioneers "mistook the call of the Limpkin for the haunting wails of tortured souls in the night time swamps". It has also described as,"a hoarse rattling cry like the gasp of person being strangled, like "little boys lost in the swamps forever;" or " an unearthly shriek" with the "quality of unutterable sadness."

Yes, here in the lonely swamps of central Orlando amidst the houses of the well to do, just a spit from the (currently rather quieter) airport and a hairsbreadth from the elegant joggers with their swinging ponytails and iPods, a little limpkin has appeared. To be fair I have not yet heard its plaintive shriek, but this is the most famous attribute of this odd and solitary little bird.

Limpkin by Audubon (the great master) called the “SCOLOPACEOUS COURLAN” from where you can read his notes and very interesting description.


My Limpkin was stalking about in the shallows of the small feeder pond where I walk. This is the pond where I found the apple snail shells and, where there are apple snails, there may be limpkins as these are their preferred food.  I watched it slowly and determinedly walk backwards and forwards several times from a clump of reeds to the shore line.

First it has an apple snail…

limpkin 1

Which it brings to the shore to deal with (you can just see the shells scattered around).


Then back to the reeds where it  buries its head in the bottom of the pond, digging for snails etc.

limpkin 7

This time returning with  a fresh water mussellimpkin4

Which it opens …(This was such an annoying piece of grass). limpkin 5o

and eats.

 limpkin 6

I was some distance away and, although it was not thrilled about me being there, it took its time to finish lunch before walking slowly away.

The interesting Limpkin Aramus Guarauna is a Latin America bird where it is also known the Carou;
from What

  • “The Limpkin is named for its limping-like flight with its dangling legs and jerky wing beats.
  • The only species in its family, it is considered most closely related to rails and cranes.
  • It was once very common in Florida, but due to the decline of its primary food source, the Florida Apple Snail, it is now listed as a SSC (species of special concern).
  • A group of limpkins are collectively known as a "hobbling" of limpkins.

The Famous Hippogriff Cry

Its eldritch shriek has been immortalised in the soundtracks of old Tarzan movies and more recently in Harry Potter because Cornell's Macaulay Library provided the voice of the Winged Hippogriff, read more here and listen to a great recording of its call made in Florida in 1956 here. I also understand it is very annoying to have Limpkins nearby if you are a light sleeper.

The Legend
In Argentina legend tells how a young boy was transformed into the crying bird for preferring to dance to the strains of the accordion and court a pretty girl rather than fetch his dying mothers medicine.  For this thoughtless act he is condemned to wail and cry, waiting for redemption,  pardon and the return of his soul. 


The only thing that haunts me about this pretty little bird is that it is out there, and that I am in here, at the drawing board..

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Friday 16 April 2010

Blue, Beautiful and Rare, Ceratina Cyanea the little British Carpenter Bee

This is a lovely bee. I have here on my desk  some little USA Ceratina duplas and the colour is quite beautiful. To the casual glance they look black and are very small but when they catch the light they shimmer with a Prussian blue sheen.

Ceratina cyanea is the UK, Small Carpenter Bee, possibly overshadowed by its very showy relation, the magnificent Xylocopa violacea which I painted and wrote about here and which is also making an appearance now in the UK.
It seems to be  confined to a few areas in Southern England. There is a very good and rather poignant account of this bee from the Essex Field Club Site which shows how the casual destruction of habitat can so easily see the demise of one  species in an area.  This was updated in 2007 and I haven’t had time to check with BWARS but I hope there are more recent sightings.

Unlike the other carpenter bees this one wont be drilling holes in your fascia boards or fence posts but will be  looking for a nice dry brittle bramble or rose twig.

I don’t have a copy of this book 'Bees of Surrey' by David W. Baldock but it has been mentioned to me so often in relation to solitary UK bees that I think I must get a copy. It has a description of Ceratina cyanea and the book is available from BWARS.


Readers will know how much I like the older natural history accounts.

In light of the arrival of the Xylocopa in the UK  it is interesting that in  “Marvels of Insect Life: a Popular account of Structure and Habit” 1916 , author Edward Step is regretting

“that the big carpenter bee has not crossed the English  Channel and added its name to the list of British bees. But if we cannot boast of having one of the largest of bees among our fauna, we of the smallest, that is also a clever worker in wood, whose metallic blue body only measures a quarter of an inch.
It is related, moreover, to the burly continental, and shares its habits, though it works in softer materials as seems fitting to its diminutive size. Ceratina needs no bulky post to accommodate its series of cells. Everybody knows that the long shoots of the bramble that have borne this autumn's crop of blackberries will die off in the winter and become brown and brittle. Next spring ceratina will be taking stock of these, and looking for one that has a broken end. Into this she will tunnel, clearing out the pith to the length of about a foot, dividing the cleared space into tiny cells, laying an egg in each, and leaving a mass of suitable food. The partitions between the cells are made of the fragments of pith cemented together by means of her saliva.


Here is an extract from the snappily titled “ Penny Cyclopædia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge” by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge published in the UK in 1836.

Ceratina ceerulcea (Apis cyanea, Kir.), a little bee which is very uncommon in this country and found during the autumn in the flowers of the Jacobeae, ( “ragwort” to us) will serve as an illustration of this genus :—it is about a quarter “of an inch in length, of a bluish-green colour, and very smooth and shining ; the fore part of the head in the male is white.

There is a long and interesting account of the habits of this little insect given by Spinola in the tenth volume of the * Annates du Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, from which the following facts are drawn.”

You see even horrid ragwort has its uses!

There are other references to Spinola’s observations of the Ceratina, but I have yet to track down a copy in English of his writing. It would be very interesting to find one.

I have had some lovely encounters with the local big carpenter bees. They are delightful, gentle and beautiful, and the local Xylocopa micans has astonishingly huge green eyes.

The Painting

Given the above, there was not really much of a decision to be made, as to what plant to draw with the beautiful bee. But, you can see by the manic scribbles (short of time) I was initially a bit undecided where to put the bramble branch.

Copy of cyan sketch 1 ceratina sketch 2

This is my final decision and,  don’t you just love blackberries! If there is one memory of childhood that I really treasure, despite the ripped clothes and bleeding hands it was blackberrying! I painted a blackberry before and quoted the wonderful Sylvia Plath poem here. It’s always worth another mention.

  blackberry 2


The Small Carpenter Bee Ceratina cyanea

ceratina sm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP approx 8” x 9 “


** Footnote, Thanks! I just want to say a few big “thank-yous” to the people who are helping me promote the exhibition. Stuart at BWARs for an advert right on the front page of the website! Dale at who will be raffling my print tomorrow at their annual get together. The tireless Damian at Help Save Bees who has done so much to get the message out about bees. He twitters, enthuses and inspires. If you are interested in bees follow him on Twitter! Elephant’s Eye for inclusion in her blog post about artists Artists at Work” here. Dan for her  mention here. All my other very kind blog friends who have put ads on their sidebars and given me mentions and my emailing and facebooking friends too of course.  I am really grateful to you all  I will get round to saying personal thanks to you all if haven’t already.

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Wednesday 14 April 2010

On Marketing and the Price of Work

I warn you this is a bit of a rant, and some may be offended by my views, if so, fine. Sometimes blunt things need to be said. Charlatans, whiners, cheapskates, and scroungers, can stop reading right now.
I was talking to an artist friend yesterday who asked me how much I would be selling the bees for. I didn’t really have a good answer but did realise that I have to properly consider the business of selling original art. It is a complete and utter quagmire.
I used to be a commercial artist where there was a price for a job, a respect for professionalism and an acknowledgement of the cost of living. You took it or not as you felt appropriate but there was always a fee. In the world of “original art” I see really nice work from good artists selling for nothing and  horrible rubbish going for thousands and I know it is all about marketing. 

So I turn to the “experts” for help.

The look

I read the advice from glittering blonde marketing experts with perfect teeth and eye popping cleavage.  “ Be like me” they say.  Well, not in your wildest dreams, even with a million dollars of plastic surgery and dental work could I ever be like you darling.

The hook

I listen to the marketing gurus, “ Get a hook”.. they say. What exactly am I supposed to do? Make up some dizzying ancestry, a bogus Russian connection or a vague association with someone famous to boost my credibility?

Or shall I do what I hate most, and court  “the pity vote”? Shall I acquire some terrible disease which suddenly seems to make bad art good? One honest commentator recently said that to win the X factor you really need a pity story.

The species

This may, initially, seem an impossibility but I think it is easier than either of the above. I can turn myself into an amazing painting animal, a cute palomino pony perhaps or a winsome chimp or a doe eyed elephant. My astounding talent revealed at last as my trainer throws me a banana and pockets the cash. And don’t tell me that the pony painting is as good as any Abstract Impressionist. That just won’t wash. To join the Fine Art game you have to be able to write the incomprehensible words to weave the mystique and I know that ponies can’t write.  (I fear I may get emails)

The criminal act

This option becomes more attractive as I get older and my hit list gets longer. I could land up in jail and be applauded for my wonderful, successful rehab due to my “ART”

However I will probably do none of the above, except perhaps the last, and just carry on as I am, because that is who I am.

Putting a Price on Things….

Original art and craft is now horribly devalued. It goes back a long way. As soon as things could be reproduced cheaply and easily, the poor old artist/craftsman has had to fight his corner. But one big problem which has  always been with us is the rich dilettante who can afford to paint/write/create and offer their wares for practically nothing and the internet has made it worse. Who are they? They are the fortunate partners of the rich, the independently rich, the rich retired who want to take up a bit of a painting, etc, etc.

Now I am the worlds greatest advocate for the joy of creativity, and think everyone alike should be out there painting, drawing etc but just wish that there was something like a legal minimum price for any original work of art. If everything started at a sensible  $150 for the smallest pencil sketch we might have some recognition of talent, hard work, training and professionalism. 

… and getting people to Pay!

There must have been something in the air yesterday because today another hard working artist friend of mine sent me a link to the brilliant Harlan Ellison defending the right of artists to be paid for what they do.  “Pay the writer “ .. here. Do watch it! This clip should be compulsory viewing for all those people out there who think that artists are somehow not real people and can live on air. The people who are slow to pay, who want something for nothing, who always want a discount! The people who ask me how much a painting would be and huffily turn away when I say a very modest $100. I look at their shoes, their mobile phones, their coiffure, their swanky car, their nice house and I wonder how they got the money for those things. Do they have a job, do they get paid? Somebody must have had a job and somebody must have been paid. 

I used to own a small gallery and burnt into my memory is the ignorant comment from a buyer who, looking at a lovely signed and  framed print from a wildlife artist glanced at the ticket and said haughtily “I am not paying 15 UK pounds (say $22) for just a print! It was at this point that my first really bad criminal act was nearly committed.

Just making a living

Many years ago I heard a wise man talking about the minimum wage. “Everyone” he said “has the right to earn a modest living and be able to pay their way”.  That is so true. Artists without private means choose a rocky path as it is these days but it is still their right. In these days of a million reproductions and easily downloadable images and the insane need for more and more cheap “stuff”, real, original art is something very special and for all the personal effort, love, care and angst that goes into creating it should be valued, treasured, saved up for, coveted, loved and very very definitely always be properly paid for.

I am not an arbiter of taste. People’s opinion of what is good and bad art is entirely their own business, but whatever it is they should expect to pay properly for it. And be clear that I am talking about original pieces here, not prints.. that is a whole other can of worms.

As to how much for the bees?? I am still not sure, but they really have to earn their keep and maybe won’t be for sale just yet.  To be honest I would rather sweep streets than sell originals for nothing and I think I may require a potential buyer to watch that Ellison clip before even beginning to negotiate!

Tuesday 13 April 2010

A Bee on a Broomstick, the Opportunist Snail Shell Bees.

Yes, you knew all along that yesterday’s snail shells were not just random sketches but really bee related..didn’t you?

I first came across these astonishing little bees when reading “Animal Architecture” by Karl Von Frisch. In his fascinating book he describes how the bee will search for a suitable empty snail shell, provision it with bee bread, lay her egg, then, leaving enough space for the growing bee, seal it with a partition of chewed up leaves, (there are sometimes more than one cell in each shell). She then fills the remaining whorls with a fortifying layer of tiny stones finishing off with a final partition and some moss. She then carefully covers the shell with a tent of twigs and grass and chewed up leaves for extra camouflage. from bees of the world

This photo from “Bees of the World” by Christopher O’Toole and Anthony Raw, shows an Osmia bee finishing off her nest with a sliver of reinforcing snail shell.

There are some very nice accounts of people observing these industrious little bees, both past and present. Here is an extract from Frisch’s book accompanied by a really nice drawing which illustrates his observation.

“Once when I was out hunting insects, I made a swipe at an oddly flying, bizarre-looking creature. To my surprise all I found nothing in my net apart from a mason bee and a dry stalk. Having read about the tent building habits of of these bees I was intrigued. I released the bee and settled down to watch. After a while I was rewarded by seeing her return, riding on another piece of stalk like a witch on a broomstick.The heavy load slowed her down to such an extent that I just managed to keep her in sight as I ran and she herself guided me to her nest.

Another time I watched the same species nest building on a cow track in a mountain pasture. Here the stalks and twigs were all arranged toward the toe end of the cows footprints, a beautiful adaptation to local conditions. The speed of the building was amazing. One of the bees I watched was just making a partition for which she had collected bits of leaves from a nearby strawberry patch. She kept flying back and forth in a straight line between the plants and the nest”

snail shell bee Frisch

Jean Henri Fabre experimented with giving bees a choice of shell or hollow reed for nesting and concluded that they would only take the shell if the reed was not available possibly because it is more difficult to build a nest in a tapering spiral than in a tube of more or less constant dimensions. The bees has to calculate that the size of the aperture will accommodate her developing offspring!

“Why, when I offer them simultaneously Snail-shells and reeds of a suitable size, do the old frequenters of the shells prefer the reeds, which in all probability have never before been utilized by their race? Most of them scorn the ancestral dwelling and enthusiastically accept my reeds. Some, it is true, take up their quarters in the Snail-shell; but even among these a goodly number refuse my new shells and return to their birth-place, the old Snail-shell, in order to utilize the family property, without much labour, at the cost of a few repairs. Whence, I ask, comes this general preference for the cylinder, never used hitherto? The answer can be only this: of two lodgings at her disposal the Osmia selects the one that provides a comfortable home at a minimum outlay. She economizes her strength when restoring an old nest; she economizes it when replacing the Snail-shell by the reed.”

There are lots of lovely observations about the snail shell bees in his writings..He describes the different Osmia and which shells they seem to prefer. Go to… search, read, and share his delight.

Walter Linsenmaier’s “Insects of the World” details how some bees move the shells to hiding places.

Taking firm hold of the ground with repeated bites they grasp the shell with their legs and haul it after them. Some apply plant paste to parts of the slippery shell enabling their feet to get a firm grip. A few species bury the shell in sandy soil, others protect it with a cover of interwoven pine needles… It is ever a new experience to observe how objectively and with what careful testing such bees work and how penetratingly thorough is their interest in their productions.”

(It is interesting that his illustration predated that of Frisch’s and is very similar and I would imaging that Turid Holldobler who drew the text illustrations for Frisch based her drawings on Linsenmaier’s.)

Whose Shell is This?
For a current, and wonderfully entertaining view of a snail shell bee investigating a shell go to Nico Vereecken’s short film here. Initially it seems that a bee arrives to find the shell already occupied by another but a bee comes back again and again, goes in and out of the shell and turns it over and over. Watch for the uneasy encounter between the bee and the jumping spider, who is playing king of the castle, and the passing enormous elegant ant!

Nick has built an incredible photographic bee resource which you can find on Flickr here. Thanks so much to Alan at Norwegica’s Aculeate Blog for first linking to this film!!

The Painting
There are several UK Osmia bees which use snail shells Osmia bicolor, Osmia aurulenta and the little Osmia spinulosa (10mm) which is the one I chose to paint. Jeremy Early at “Nature Conservation Imaging” refers to them in his excellent Downland Bees” page. They seem to use a variety of shells so I went out snail shell hunting some time ago only to discover that there are not many land snails to be found here. I eventually found one I thought suitable and made some sketches and then built a little set complete with a tiny bee. (apologies to the very sensitive amongst you, but it’s one that was kindly sent to me).

sketch book sm

sketch 2sketch 1

Why did I choose this bee? For the very non scientific reason that it has beautiful blue eyes!

hoplitis 2


The Blue Eyed Osmia Spinulosa, considering the possibility of a new home…

snail shellsm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP approx 8” x 8”

BLOG UPDATE .. May 19th 2010.
Great blog post on Osmia bicolour making her nest in a snailshell.. here: at Antje Schulte's blog "Four Feet and More"

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Monday 12 April 2010

“Buzz” ….Are we nearly there yet?… No.

I am just looking at the calendar. I have a little over 5 weeks before I have to fly to the UK with all the pictures. I now have 30 frames waiting there for me to fill. I still have to organise the mounts (mats) but I can’t really do that until I have finished the paintings. I have to write some blurb about each one, there are prices to consider, a catalogue even a simple one, hangings, fixings, numberings, a board with bee info, leaflets, the cafe, prints, cards and of course the horror of “promotion”.

“How many more bees???” “Is there an end in sight??”  “Can we have something different?”

The trouble is that the more bees I paint, the more seem to line up asking to be painted. How can I possibly leave out the long horned bee? How can I possibly ignore the winsome girdled mining bee? How can the set be complete without the beautiful blue ceratina

The problem with learning about bees is that you get pulled into a completely absorbing and seemingly ever expanding family. I can’t believe that once I had doubts about finding enough interesting subjects.   I have finished and blogged 14 bees, repainted two 2, added 3 to the list. Which means there are about 9 more to go making about 24 bee portraits. My original intention was to include some of the cuckoo bees, and even a predator or two but there just won’t be time.

The other 6 frames will hopefully contain some watercolour sketches of just a few of the favourite bee flowers.  Its nice to think that they might be a bit quicker but that is not normally the case. However this week I must start them so… yes…something a bit different this week. Interspersed with the remaining bees of course.

Meanwhile some snail shell sketches…as my progress seems rather slow they seem appropriate..


 shell sketches sm

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Friday 9 April 2010

Foxy Lady of the Solitary Bee World, the Tawny Mining Bee.

This is another bee I painted before for Deborah’s 16 bee set here. It’s the lovely Tawny Mining bee, Andrena fulva who leaves little volcanoes in your lawn after  digging out her nest. It is one of my favourites, she is so pretty.

I wrote about it before too, but I am repeating this quote from David Kendall’s site from my previous post, because it is worth repeating and timely.

The female bee makes a small volcano-like mound with the soil excavated from the nest. There may be many nests close together, giving the impression of communal life, but each female is actually working alone. Nesting activity lasts only a short time (perhaps 2-3 weeks), after which the small mounds of earth around each nest entrance soon disappear, with no permanent damage to the lawn. Take care not to confuse solitary bee nest mounds with the mounds of earth caused by the nesting activity of ant colonies. Solitary bee mounds have a single large entrance hole in the middle, and by watching for a short while on a warm sunny day, you will see the bees coming and going to collect pollen.

If left alone, these bees will often nest in the same area year after year, and provide an annual service by pollinating your early flowering fruit trees and shrubs (apples, pears, currants and gooseberries) and other garden plants - so helping to ensure good crops later in the year.

from his very nice readable site “Insects and other Arthropodshere.


Let’s hear it for the Solitary Bees!!

My hesitant efforts to promote the exhibition,  were rewarded recently with an email from an organisation who are having a  “bee support” campaign.  They said they were not really interested in what I was doing because it was about solitary bees and their concern was for honey bees.  I was quite dismayed at this remark (understatement!) which smacks rather of the French attitude which Paul fromSolitary Bee encounters.  Perhaps it came from someone who doesn’t really know much about bees in general (..  she says, trying to be kind), but it did make me more determined to be a champion of these important  “other” bees.

I do realise that, to win the place in our hearts and minds that honey bees occupy, solitary bees have quite long way to go, but they have so much going for them and they serve us so very well. I know there are quite a few of us out there who feel the same. I feel a ranting blog post and campaign coming on !… and how could you not love a little Tawny Mining bee!!


The Painting

I know what I wanted for this one so not so much dithering. She is perching on a twig looking down at the nest she has excavated.

rufa sketch

These are really neat little bees with shortish hair which stands out from the body .. I think I described them before as rather like little bottle brushes. (think of the tree!). I was going to make this the title of the blog post (“Bottle Brush of the Bee World”) but didn’t want to be responsible for any harm coming to Tawny Mining bees: you know how stupid some people can be. 
I have a reasonable scanner but it does average the colours out and I don’t have time to play around with things too much, but in the original she in much more a two tone foxy redhead, as she should be.


The Tawny Mining Bee.. Loveable .. YES..!

Tawney mining bee

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP.   8x7”

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Thursday 8 April 2010

Mr Frederick William Sladen and His Humble Bees

I have been reading “The Humble-Bee” by F.W.L. Sladen. I have the 1912 edition borrowed from my local library, on loan from some other distant library in the USA and it has to go back tomorrow. I am reluctant to let it go, very reluctant. It’s a piece of Bumble Bee history being the first in-depth study of Bumble Bees and their behaviour to be published in English. Written in a similar style to Fabre where observation and affection are given equal billing it is a delightful, informative and engaging read.

 title page

Sladen published this book in 1912 at the age of 26 which seems young enough but it was preceded by a 40 page pamphlet which he wrote and published at the tender age of 16.

“The title, scheme, and some of the contents of this book are borrowed from a little treatise printed on a stencil copying apparatus in August 1892.”

What Frederick Sladen calls his “little treatise” was in fact an already knowledgeable study of bumble bees and their behaviour. I wonder if any sixteen year old these days could produce anything so wise and careful. He was fortunate to be born into a wealthy family with the encouragement of private tutors, but it is still an outstanding achievement.

One of eleven children he lived on the family estate at Ripple Court, near Dover in the UK (which is curiously only a few miles from my last UK home. If only I had known !).  Here he would find bumble bee nests and move them to a place in the garden where he could not only observe them, but care for them with the concern of a fond parent, protecting his bees from parasites, predators and inclement weather.

The book is full of scientific information, species descriptions and  lovely anecdotal observations. He keeps a nest of B lapidarius in his study and watches them as they fly in and out of the window while he works, he cares for a crippled B terrestris Queen, finds foster mothers for abandoned broods and tirelessly removes earwigs, millipedes and ants from the nests. There is of course the scientific collector about him and he describes how to make a collection of pinned specimens, which still makes me feel queasy. Although I have been grateful for specimens from others I just can’t be the one to deliberately end their little lives.

A Two Hour Photo.. Photographing bees in 1912

It’s so easy just to run out with the digital camera now, take a millions shots, hope that one of them will be OK and casually delete the rest.   But if Mr. Sladen was not so fortunate in his technology the excitement and possibilities of photography back then must have made every effort to photograph a living bee worthwhile, and a leap of faith.

On June 17th, 1911 he is endeavouring to take a photograph of a B terrestris Queen on her nest and even gives her a bit of film star touch-up before the shot.

I carried the nest to a suitable spot for taking the picture. To make a satisfactory exposure it was necessary for the queen to sit still for about half-a-minute, and several attempts were a failure; but a successful one was finally made, and the result is shown in the frontis-piece.

During the long ordeal, which lasted two hours, the queen took wing and flew back to her domicile four times. Each time I caught her in my net, and on the last two occasions she was quite pleased to find herself confined therein, having quickly learnt that this was the prelude to coming back to her nest, and she showed great eagerness to find her brood when she was placed on the photographing table, knowing perfectly well that it was there.

Her coat was a little dusty, and she allowed me to brush it clean with a camel's hair brush as she sat on the brood, just before her picture was taken.

This nest eventually developed into a very populous colony.

photo queen

 Frederic Sladen’s photo of B terrestris on her nest 1911

The book also has very good colour plates from photographs of his own collection, which makes it seem quite modern. Sadly it seems the original photos were lost and modern editions only have scans of the old printed pages.

sladen bombus prtorum 


If like me you can’t afford the 229.00 UK pounds for 1912 edition you can buy a print-on-demand edition via Amazon. A better option, but still expensive, is the Logaston Press edition from 1989 which has a facsimile of the original 1892 “little treatise” in the appendix.  However you can read and download the whole book here at the outstanding resource that is the Biodiversity Library,’s just not quite the same as the original though, is it?

It has been a delight and a privilege to hold this lovely, tatty, well thumbed old book in my hands. I wonder where it has been in the last 100 years? Who else has pored over its wonderful contents? And who else after reading it, felt that need to rush out into the garden to look with new eyes at what is going on around them?

Yes, I am extremely reluctant to return this book.

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Monday 5 April 2010

There Will Be Apples!.. (if you have an Orchard Bee). Osmia rufa again.

I knew I was going to repaint this one, so here is this serious little mason bee again. I have to be completely frank .. she is not the most elegant of bees. The female bees have rather large heads, which plus the accompanying horns give her a rather pugnacious appearance. She will use the horns to shape the mud for her nest.  I have written about the Osmia Orchard bees both UK and USA before here, so I am not going to say much more and there is oodles of info on the internet.

Solitary Bee Blog

One delightful and fascinating blog is from Paul at Paul lives near Paris and charts his life with his solitary bees and his successes and failures in trying to increase their numbers. He talks about his concerns, his observations and conclusions with affection and humour. He doesn’t have fancy bee nests, some are as simple as beer cans and rolled paper. He is a diligent and resourceful carer. I particular liked his use of a black socks to keep out the light and prevent his cocoons from premature emergence (from an early post here). There are some short films with French bird soundtracks and lots of info about the care of Osmia rufa and cornuta 

solitary bee success

“End of 2009 solitary bee successes – c.90 cocoons became 400” Photo by Paul from his blog,,

I am quoting a piece from his intro which is interesting, not only because of his appreciation for and understanding of these lovely bees but for the curious attitude of the French.

“According to the experts, each bee can pollinate up to ten times more flowers than a honey bee but they are in no way aggressive to those in their midst. Over here in France, they are often misunderstood by people looking on; where my ‘colony’ of bees live, the locals here refer to them as lazy bees because they don’t produce honey (and thus appear to be of no exploitable value).

For me however they are a source of inspiration. What they achieve in their focused short existence leaves the world in a much better shape – in 2007 our orchards were full of fruit.”

I hope you are getting your message across Paul. 


The Painting

I changed the painting, made her a little smaller and daintier, and, in tribute to their unsung work in the orchards, she is now flying up towards apple blossom. .. I think this will also be the title of the painting…


There Will Be Apples. 

osmia 2sm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP approx 7 x 8”

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