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Pencil and Leaf

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Saturday 23 October 2010

Pollen:Beautiful colours, fascinating form.

The honeybee I am about to paint is carrying pollen and is foraging on lavender, so it’s important  that I make sure the pollen colour is correct. Lavender pollen is a rich yellow colour, which you can see if you look closely at the flowers.

From the wonderful UK microscopy site, PS Micrographs, here is a thumbnail of a coloured electron micrograph of a lavender pollen grain Lavendula dentata.


Lavender Pollen Grain © by Cheryl Power  

When I first started my work on bees, I had a vague idea that pollen came in different shapes and colours but in fact the variety of colour and shape is really quite stunning, beautiful, both in colour and form.


Mixed Pollen: Image :

You can find pollen colour guides on the internet. There is an excellent interactive chart on the Bristol Beekeepers site,   Go  there, and click on the colours to see which pollen belongs to which plant.

pollen chart 

Don’t you just love colour charts!
You can buy printed guides such as this one, by William Kirk from IBRA.


And if you are rich you can acquire one of the very desirable “The Pollen Loads of the Honey Bees” published in 1952 by beekeeper and artist Mrs Dorothy Hodges.


I have, sadly, not seen an original copy but I do know it has wonderful tipped in colour samples. She not only painted pollen colours but described the process of pollen gathering. I quote from a thesis on “Willow” written by Syliva Briercliffe and published on Dave Cushman’s Bee site here

“She (Dorothy Hodges) describes in her book the pollen packing process, of bees on poppies (papaver) - these flowers yield only pollen. The bee scrambling among the anthers gets dusted all over with pollen grains. She leaves the flower and hovers, stroking her tongue over her forelegs and moistening the pollen with regurgitated honey. Using brushes on her legs and the antennae on her head… she moulds the pollen pack around a single hair on her corbicula (pollen basket). “

Here is a reproduction of the (printed) Summer Pollen chart from a later edition of the book. 

Hodges pollen loads 

Thanks to Denver Botanic Gardens' Botanical Art blog for reproducing this.

The blue and purple pollens are astonishing, aren’t? I knew about the wonderful dark pollen of poppies, but here again from the PS Micrographs site are some thumbnails of extraordinary pollen grains. Do go and have a look at their wonderful work. Some of the bits and pieces of bugs are really amazing.

hyssop-pollen-grains--hyssopus-officinalis--80200693-t ivy-pollen--hedera-helix--sem-80016111-t
Hyssop Pollen and a very timely image of the super important Ivy Pollen.

leucospermum-pollen-grain--leucospermum-sp---80200528-t marrow-pollen-80200001a-t
Leucospermum pollen and  Marrow pollen, all images from PS Micrographs.

I am back up in chilly Lincolnshire for a while and although we have ivy here I have not seen much life on it, mostly just hoverflies.. but then it has been very very cold. But I am going out to have a look at the pollen!

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Sunday 17 October 2010

Lavender update and “Nature's Sting”

I mentioned “Project Lavender” a couple of posts ago, which is a project to find out, amongst other things, which lavender is the best for bees. Downderry Nursery have kindly sent me the names of the varieties which are being tested. Here they are:

Ashdown Forest
Blue Mountain White
Imperial Gem
Melissa Lilac
Princess Blue
Dutch Group
Gros Bleu

Don’t get too excited though because they won’t know which one is the favourite for 3 years.. but you could always just get one of each of course and do your own experiment.

And big thankyous to all the people who send me bee news as I have been very cut off from things recently. Ben Bulow sent me the link to the BBC´s excellent piece:
Nature's sting: The real cost of damaging Planet Earth by Richard Anderson Business reporter, BBC News

It’s interesting that the article falls under the “business” rather than the “ecology” category and is about “just how expensive the degradation of nature really is.” For example, the staggering cost to the world “of replacing insect pollination is around $190bn every year”

You don't have to be an environmentalist to care about protecting the Earth's wildlife. Just ask a Chinese fruit farmer who now has to pay people to pollinate apple trees because there are no longer enough bees to do the job for free.

It’s a sobering article, highlighting some recent reports which show how our disregard for the natural order of things can cost us very dearly. The decline of bees and other insect pollinators is just one small part of the whole mess we are finding ourselves in.

Recently I have been reading more about the Insect Pollinators Initiative that was announced in April 2009. The projects sound interesting and much needed and I am glad and 10 million pounds is a fair bit of money but, a year on, it seems it is still being “announced”. I am just wondering why they don’t get on and do something. However, I am reassured by the Living With Environmental Change newsletter who say this about the project

The causes of pollinator declines are likely to be multifactorial, involving complex interactions between pollinators, their pests and pathogens, and the environment. Multidisciplinary and systems-based approaches will be important in elucidating them. In particular, the funders are keen to bring to bear on these issues - alongside the expertise of the existing pollinator research community - relevant new skills such as state-of-the-art and high-throughput “post-genomic” technologies, and the latest techniques in epidemiological and ecological modelling.

Hmm.. that’s a fine and dandy bit of writing but I am still not sure what they will be doing and anyway it will be five years before there is any conclusive evidence. I hope they all keep daily blogs and account sheets, so that we can see what they are up to. Perhaps they will ? Perhaps we can be given some info along the way so we, the public, can do something about it, or perhaps we have to wait for the “fully funded presentation” in five years time… sigh… I know research takes time but by their own admission the decline needs “urgent” attention.

However lots of non scientists are getting on with things right now and this year has been wonderful for "bee awareness" and I hope it will be carried over into next year and the year after that. I shall be doing what I can with my “Buzz” exhibition and some talks and generally enthusing ( might that be “boring”?) people about bees. I do think I need to start including some other pollinators in the blog too. And we can all plant a few more wildflowers and of course, some more lavender…Sorry my faithful blog readers, I am preaching to the converted I know.

Here are a couple of studies of a little lavender sprig I found yesterday. Yes, despite the biting north east wind which has been ripping leaves off the trees and making a sea front walk just sheer unadulterated misery, there are still a few lavender flowers to be seen. Tough little plant this!

lavender 2 smlav flower sm

A (hardy) lavender sprig … pencil

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Monday 11 October 2010

Life on the Elegant Ivy.

Yesterday on a beautiful sunny Sunday I spent a good hour just watching the comings and goings on one of the ivy bushes which grow on waste ground near the railway tracks. These scrubby bits of land are a tangle of brambles and ivy and both yesterday and today the ivy was alive with happy insects.

Here are a few:

Ivy bee sunning itself,

Honey bee and ladybird,

Bombus lucorum I think,


Drone hoverfly I think and lucorum..

beefly and luc

A very sleepy and slow B terrestris. I wondered if this lovely big bee was getting close to the end of its days?


As well as bees, wasps, flies and ladybirds, the bushes were covered with butterflies but just the one species, the pretty Red Admirals and so many of them. All were so intent on feeding that I could get quite close.

There was one huge hoverfly. I think the biggest in the UK and another insect mostly found in the South. Sometimes called the hornet mimic hoverfly, (you can see why), this is the splendid Volucella zonaria.

There were many other little hoverflies, and two sorts of wasps, this one was having a brush up.


and on some nearby brambles, what I think is a ruby tiger moth caterpillar

which will, with a bit of luck, turn into one of these,

Wonderful picture of the Ruby Tiger moth Phragmatobia fulginosa from the Lepidoptera Breeders Association.

Everything seems to like this ivy bush much more than other varieties in the town. I wonder why? Perhaps the nectar is different. But this particular bush was covered with life whereas other were largely unvisited. This one has very elegant deeply lobed leaves. I put a leaf on the windowsill to sketch it (the dead fly has now gone..). This is my only available surface at the moment so I sit with my sketchbook on my knee, but the shadows are lovely.

Elegant Ivy Leaf….

ivyb ivybg

Pencil sketch 6”

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Saturday 9 October 2010

Elvin’s Bee, and Natural Beekeeping

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Elvin, a local beekeeper who has found me a model for my bee and lavender painting, a deceased little worker bee, just perfect for some studies for the painting.

It was particularly interesting to meet Elvin because he is a “natural “ beekeeper and builds Top Bar and Warre hives, in which the bees build their own combs.


Picture of Abbe Warre with his hive from Biobee site

This is the wonderful Abbe Emile Warre who developed the hive also known as “The People’s Hive”. There is a super site called where you can find extremely comprehensive info all about Warre hives. It is written and compiled by David Heaf , see more here.

It’s an interesting story about a kind man who wanted to develop a simple, natural, bee friendly hive. He apparently experimented with over 300 different types of hive before coming up with a top bar hive which basically allows bees to do what they do naturally and build their own combs. There is a lot more to it than that of course…go and read more, it's fascinating!

From Elvin’s site you can order one of the beautifully simple Top bar or Warre hives and here is photo from his site of a Warre hive in the snow, reminding me just how cold it can be in the UK.hive in snow

Elvins snowy beehive.

He has some wonderful photos of the natural combs too.. top bar

I am going to read more about natural beekeeping. If/when I eventually have a house or a garden I will be very tempted to have one of these bee friendly homes.

top bar h

Some busy happy bees arriving with some very full pollen baskets to Elvin’s Top Bar hive yesterday. There was also some sun, unlike today which has been relentlessly cold and miserable.. that’s the East coast for you!

I asked him where his bees would be foraging now..where else but on ivy of course.


And today I found some more ivy with more ivy bees, wasps and honey bees. The ivy is also festooned with many spiders webs, those big fat spiders that come out in Autumn (photos to come). I spent quite a long time rescuing a couple of honey bees from the sticky webs. A wasp had already been wrapped up and stored for later…oh dear. The bees took some time to rid themselves of the remnants of the web but eventually flew away just fine. I am rather hoping they were Elvin’s bees.

Elvin’s Honey Bee Sketches.

It’s a while since I drew a bee so I wanted to make a few studies. Little honey bees have endearing heart shaped faces and rather attractive spiky hair on the top of their heads.

elvins beebg

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Tuesday 5 October 2010

Bees, Flowers and “Project Lavender”.

The lavender here in the south is still going strong which is good because  I have a lovely commission to paint a honeybee with some lavender. They do go together so well don’t they?

I have been quite taken with the many different varieties of  lavender that I have seen growing in peoples gardens locally and all bee lovers know that lavender is a top bee magnet. It is included in all the bee friendly plant lists… but who knows how accurate the lists are?? 

Project Lavender

To address the rather random collections of hearsay, The University of Sussex is doing an interesting trial this year to find out which garden flowers are really the very best value for bees and other pollinators with an emphasis on urban, garden and park plantings. They are looking particularly at lavender, 14 different types to be precise.  The project is called appropriately “Project Lavender”

Here is a quote from their site

“late summer and autumn are difficult times for honey bees to find forage, as opposed to spring, when most plants are blooming. Therefore, lavender was chosen for its late flowering period. Fourteen popular varieties of lavender to be tested in this experiment were recommended by Downderry Nursery… In addition, other common garden plants will be tested, such as geranium, nasturtium, dahlia, borage and others. The results of this experiment will help people make well-informed choices for their bee-friendly gardens, helping not only honey bees, but also bumblebees and other pollinators facing current declines.

The project started in May and you can read more about it here. Endearingly, they are also looking at 

“..the efficacy of hedges or lattice fences around an apiary in reducing stinging, by forcing bees to fly high, thereby reducing collisions with humans.
key aim of this research is to provide information that will allow honey bees to be kept in allotments, thereby providing urban beekeepers places to keep hives and at the same time providing pollination.”

Nice! I am not entirely sure about the policy on bees and allotments, it seems to vary. 

Below: Dad’s unnamed lavender in July just beginning to the red tailed bumble bee.

dads lavender

Downderry Nursery has a site full of lavenders and lavender info. I had no idea there were so many different classifications. At the Nursery they breed new species and also tip their hat at the enthusiastic contribution made by bees.

“we’re often surprised by the wonderful plants produced by open pollinated ‘breeding’, courtesy of bees!

Thanks to their nice site I now know my bracteole from my calyx. Their plant pages are beautiful shade cards of pinks, mauves, purples and blues, with wonderful names like Twickel Purple, Miss Muffet, Night of Passion and Walberton's Silver Edge.


I haven’t got very far with the painting due to relocation ups and  downs.. but we have decided that this little honey bee, flying in amongst the lavender, will be carrying a nice full load of pollen, because Debbie, my patient client is a beekeeper!

Rough sketch for bee with lavender:

bee 2 sm

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Saturday 2 October 2010

Ivy Bees lucky I am!

I have been walking a lot these last few days.. up and down the coastal path, miles and miles, between the two castles and on to the edge of the cliffs. On the way I pass some ancient ivy covered walls and overgrown thickets where ivy has grown tall and become tree like. It is in full bloom right now, its strange little greeny yellow flowers glistening with nectar and every patch is covered with Ivy Bees.. pretty stripy Colletes hederae everywhere… just everywhere…

If this delightful bee is rare in some parts of the UK, here in the South East corner with France clearly visible across the Channel this morning, it is making itself very much at home. I wanted to check its progress on BWARS but the site is down at the moment, but I don’t think they have spread as far as Lincolnshire yet.

I watched these charming bees for some time. They are quick and very very quiet. Even standing right in amongst a big clump of ivy and allowing for noisy seagulls, it was hard to hear them.  But they are easy to recognise because of the gingery furry thorax,very distinctly striped abdomen and big dark eyes.  

My camera is inadequate but here are a few photos…This one stopped to brush off some of its load of pollen.

When they are busy feeding they are quite oblivious of you. They work each flower very intently. I only have enlarging rings on my camera for close-ups so have to get very close and then focusing is hit and miss.. but do have one reasonable photo…


and a rather blurry one…

This is such a pretty bee and one I wrote about and painted for “Buzz” see blog post hereThe Delightful Stripy Ivy Bee . They are fairly new to the UK. I am so lucky to see them!

Enjoying the ivy along with the bees were hoverflies, regular flies and wasps. I hope for more and better photos soon..

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