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

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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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