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Thursday 28 April 2011

Some Rabbits

It’s very easy for a whole day to go by here without really doing very much except wander about the countryside, round the lake and along the hedgerows. In a new place there is so much to take in.

But I don’t even have to go out. Opposite us there is a family of rabbits who play in the road in the early morning. They lollop about and play and nibble the grass or whatever it is that rabbits nibble. This morning I was fascinated to watch one of them pull down branches of the beech hedge and eat the young leaves. It was very intent on its delicious breakfast, so I could sketch it quickly.

young rabbits sm

Rabbit nibbling the young beech shoots at the bottom of the hedge.

It was a good start but somehow the rest of the day just got away from me. … but I did find a rather interesting fossil of some kind. We are on Oxford Clay here, which according to Bucks Earth Heritage webpage  “was deposited in a deepening sea around 160 million years ago.”  How wonderful…how exactly does a sea deepen?

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Wednesday 27 April 2011

Some Osmia Sketches

The weather is still beautiful, if colder now and I am reluctant to be indoors. I spent most of the day out cycling and walking by the water, and failing miserably to get any good bee photos.
But eventually I made myself sit down with a sketch book, paints, a pencil and my models, two Osmia rufa bees. One male and one female.
Despite my best efforts to rescue, revive and release the lost bees (seven today), some have died. I found 3 papery little bodies when we moved in, curled up on the window ledges. As sad as this is I have to be practical and can make some studies which all helps my knowledge and understanding. And it’s a chance to pay a little homage.

osmia bee male
The males have long antennae and moustaches but are quite a bit smaller than the females.

osmias 2

Male and female Osmia rufa, casualties of .. well ….just of life… I guess.

Three days ago there were lots of males, now it seems just females are getting into the house. I suppose they are looking for a nest site and have taken a wrong turn somewhere in the labyrinthine wall cavities.

I am trying to get back to some daily sketching after what seems like a long time. Hopefully poco a poco, a little every day. :)

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Tuesday 26 April 2011

The Humming House..Osmia rufas everywhere

I have found a temporary home, not yet the admirable one I am hoping for, but this little cottage will be fine for now and its setting is quite lovely. It’s only a few yards from the shore of Grafham Water and the 8.9 mile cycle track which skirts the waters edge, and bounces you through woods and fields, up, down and round the reservoir.

If I was happy about the location, I was even happier when, opening the car door to unload the luggage, I was met with a hum, a very loud hum. The whole building, two cottages and the outhouse were humming. The walls, roofs and the surrounding air were thick with the hum and buzz of clouds of bees, and it turns out we will be sharing our accommodation with hundreds of busy Osmia bees.
They are just everywhere, living in every nook, cranny, crevice, nail hole, airbrick space, and in every tiny chink in the mortar. They are in the eves, in the gap between the door frame and the bricks, they are behind the fascia boards, they are in the roof.



……….and out.

and out

Watching the constant to-ing and fro-ing is dizzying with lots of jostling for access to the nest entrances. The exposed holes in the structural bricks used for the decorative inset have all been enthusiastically colonised. Optimistic spiders have strung webs between the bricks but these robust little bee are not much deterred by them and clamber over or break through the sticky strands I have only seen one wrapped up and stored for later.

Spider’s webs draped across the bricks

The bees hum all the time. We are lulled to sleep with the hum. We are woken with the hum. I hear them in my dreams and I could swear that when you put your ear to the bricks, the cottage walls are gently vibrating.

Lost bees wander into the house and have to be rescued. Mating couples had to be gently and respectfully coaxed away from footfall and from under car tyres. They are out and about early and finish work late, endlessly backwards and forwards, carrying load of pollen for food stores for the developing larvae and mud to seal up the nest cells. I watched the females collecting mud from a nearby damp rut in the road. They will carry this back to their nests in their awesome jaws and tamp it down with their strange little horns. After three days this mud source had dried up in the sunny warm weather, but by the edge of the water they will, I am sure, find more. I filled a couple of nearby plant pots with wet earth.. just in case.

osmia collecting mud
Female Osmis rufa bees collecting mud at the side of the nearby road.

These pretty bees will not live to see their offspring develop into bees. The larvae stay in the nest, eating the pollen supplies, getting larger and larger, eventually spinning a cocoon in early autumn.
The bizarre and wonderful process of pupation sees them develop from grub to a little bee and they spend the winter hopefully safe and secure in their cocoons to emerge in the spring. Females may make make 5 or 6 nests of 6 to 9 cells. By the look of all the activity outside here there will be many more bees next year!

Below: I found a lost female bee looking wistfully out of the window this morning. You can see her little horns very clearly.

osmia at window

On being offered my helping hand, she happily climbed on board, after waving a worried leg at me.


I took her outside and she flew away. If you do have mason bees there is no need to fear them at all..they don’t sting.

Observing these bees now poses more questions than it answers. How far do they go to find water, mud and food? Why are so many bees using one hole. I know these are solitary bees but I have watched and counted ten bees using the same entrance. I suppose the wall is just full of individual nests. It must be honeycombed with nest tubes, It’s an odd thought that the fabric and insulation of the cottage is partly made up of sleeping bees.
According to the owner of the cottages the bees have been here for years. I wonder how much of the existing nest material they re-use and does that mean the nests are prone to parasites?

bee nest holes

A little yellow bottomed bee carrying pollen in her scopa is disappearing into the mortar. Some of the construction holes in the bricks are semi blocked. Is this old or new building? There is one at the top left of the photo.

Go to Paul’s Solitary Bee Blog where he has been recording his “beekeeping”(in as much as you can “keep” wild bees) for 6 years. His recent post “ Thank you solitary bees” details some key facts about these wonderful helpful friends of the gardener and pollinator of our fruits.

I wrote about, and painted, the red mason bee in my There will be Apples post last April. I am so delighted to be sharing some time and space with them here in Grafham…. a few sketches tomorrow!

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Monday 11 April 2011

Homeless, some bees (and me)

We have, over the last few weeks, been trying to find somewhere to live, so I found myself feeling somewhat sympathetic towards this rather handsome bee I found in the garden the other day.

melecta sm1[1] 

melecta 2 sm[1]

It’s Melecta albifrons one of the cuckoo bees. Here from the informative Essex Field Club site is a concise explanation.

“It is a cleptoparasite or cuckoo bee of Anthophora - this means that the bee (female) goes into an Anthophora burrow and lays its egg with the pollen food supply gathered by Anthophora. When the Melecta egg hatches the larva feeds up on the food supply intended for the Anthophora larva, pupates and emerges next year instead of the host.”

I have known about the cuckoo bees but this has been my first encounter with a live one and I, like others, was struck by its rather relaxed behaviour. It was just drifting about the flowerbeds, quite unlike the darting, purposeful flight of its host. It stopped to feed on the muscari and was not unduly bothered by my close proximity which enabled me to photograph it with my rather basic camera.

To read and understand more about this curious bee go to Blackbird’s unfailingly  excellent “A Bug Blog” and read her post “Melecta, a cleptoparasitic bee” and get a better look at the bee itself.

I have recently got hold of a copy of Edward Step’s 1932 “Bees Wasps Ants & Allied Insects”. In the fascinating chapterHomeless Bees”, he mentions 2 Melecta species but takes issue with the name……… 

“…we have to take exception to the scientific name. Melecta signifies a gatherer of honey, but as this bee has no cells in which to store it, she can be at most, a mere sipper of nectar for her own refreshment!”

Its perhaps easy to feel rather disapproving of these lazy bees but I guess they still perform crucial pollination tasks so are not all bad and are very beautiful.

Another Nomad

Another tiny cuckoo bee I recently came across is, I think, Nomada goodeniana which until a year ago I would have confidently thought was a wasp. A small cloud of them were inspecting an old stone wall on a brilliantly sunny Friday afternoon at Easton Walled Garden,  where I was doing a bee recce. They are very delicate and very flighty, constantly popping in and out of successive holes but not settling for long.

 N g 1[1]Ng2[1] Ng3[1]


They are really tiny. Sometimes without something to judge the size by it’s difficult to get an idea of how small some bees are. Here below one is inspecting a hole near a rose bush tag.

What has also interested me is that, the day before, I had seen this wall busy with these tiny bees (below) which I had thought might be mason bees. The day after they had gone and had been replaced by the I am not sure what they were? .. or what was going on.


Info tells me the Nomadas are parasitic on Andrena species.  Perhaps they are Andrena nitida .. but would they nest in a wall?? I am asking for help on BWARS.

Describing these nomads of the bee world Edward Step admits,

“it is, perhaps, not strictly correct to class them as Homeless Bees because during the earlier stages of existence they have admirable homes in cells that were never intended for their use: but the most considerable genus was named “Nomada” by Fabricius, indicating pastoral, unsettled habits and it seems well to adopt the spirit of his name for all those without homes intended for them”

Hmmmm….  all  this is sounding uncomfortably a bit close to home. My father’s house is a wonderful and welcome stopping off point but Nomada valeria here is so looking forward to having an “admirable home” of her own quite soon!

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Monday 4 April 2011

Bright Little Blue “Berry Bee” Osmia aglaia

A thoughtful lady commissioned this little blue bee painting for her bee enthusiast partner.  We had discussed what might be most relevant for the area of the USA where she lives and I knew he was keen on mason bees so the beautiful little Osmia aglaia came to mind. It is the blue “Berry bee” and not only are they the most beautiful colour and very dainty, but I also have 4 little specimens here to help me.  They had been sent to me last year by  Dr Karen Strickler who is the Queen of “Bobs” (Blue Orchard Bees) in the USA. See more about her here at Pollinator Paradise.

Here I on my hand are three little female bees, shimmering blue/greens in the light and with the characteristic large heads. There is one smaller male on the left who is distinguished by size and his nice white moustache.

osmia sps

The Osmia aglaia is another member of the most charming Osmia family of bees, they are in turn members of the Megachile family of leafcutters.. Oh, and an interesting little fact is that “megachile” means “big jaws”,  for cutting away at those leaves and carrying mud etc. I guess.  I know it is bad science to attribute human traits to insects but when you watch megachiles  for a while, they seem particularly pert, very business like… and very very charming!

Apart from being gorgeous, these little bees are extraordinarily useful to us because they pollinate many fruit crops amongst them the cane “berry” fruits particularly in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. They may be metallic blue, green or rust/bronze in color and nest in tunnels in wood,about 3/8 - 1/4 inches in diameter. Sometimes these will be old holes left by beetles or woodpeckers (a bit dangerous I think as woodpeckers are rather partial to a bee grub or two ) or just hollow woody twigs  You will see them out and about as adults in the late spring, when the  Rubus is in bloom… but only in the USA. (We do have our own very beautiful Osmia bees here in the UK just not quite so colourful).


Image of osmia aglaia from USAD Raspberry Page. Photo Credit Steve Werblow, Homestead Magazine

Osmia aglaia are particularly partial to raspberries and are becoming more and more important to berry growers as the honey bee population is in decline. Jim Cane from the Bee Lab at USDA Agricultural Research in Utah and Karen have been seeing how useful they might be to local raspberry farmers in Oregon.  Read more about the Oregon Berry Bee project, here.

Do your best to encourage these sparkling little bees into your garden. Plant some delicious soft fruit to give the bees some pollen and then enjoy the produce they help to create for you. Keep in mind that they seal their nest tunnels with mud, so a mud source nearby is handy. They will look for food close to their nesting sites so they need flower and water sources to be close to hand.. or rather wing! Foraging is a hard work and uses up lots of energy so they don’t tend to venture too far from home.

See a recent article about native bee pollinators in the USA here from


Osmia aglaia. The Berry Bee, approaching Raspberry flower

osmia sm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP … 9x9

I had an anxious nail biting wait of two weeks for the parcel to arrive in the USA. It’s sometimes hard, when you have spent a long time on a painting, to entrust it to the vagaries of the British and US postal services. But eventually it arrived and I am so pleased that the little bee has found such a very appreciative home! I always tell my clients that if they are not happy they can return their bee to me!.. but they never do. Somehow bees just creep into your heart somewhere.. sounds a bit soppy but it’s true…. :)

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