"There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion" Francis Bacon 1561-1626

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Mason Bees.. some last days

I think the little colony of mason bees who have given us so much pleasure over the last couple of months are getting towards the end of their allotted span. I find myself feeling sad because they have been such a delight and we have become very fond of ”The Girls”

A Brief Diary of the Mason bees

bee house

I was late getting my bee house assembled. Its frame was appropriately an old frame from Dad’s beehive with drilled logs, hollow plant stems, a ready made bee house and all mod cons.  I wondered if any bees would even find it, never mind make a nest there. 

So, back in March I was ridiculously excited to find a female mason bee exploring the twigs and a hopeful male hanging around too.

March 20th:  First investigations
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Following glorious warm weather a glossy bright and new female checked out the hollow stems

and a hopeful male arrived.

APRIL
But nothing much seemed to happen in April. There were no takers for my bee house. It was so wet and so cold. I wondered if all the bees had died. 

But gradually with the help of a few sunny days I began to see more and more of them flying. The males and females will mate and then sadly the males die. It’s a very short life for them, but for the females things are  just getting busy.  They investigated every inch of the house and surrounding walls, every knot hole in the fence, every nail hole and crack in the mortar and even the definitely-too-large wind chime tubes.

Watching them choose their homes was fascinating. They went in and out of all the cardboard tubes and the holes I had drilled. They even squeezed into much-too-tight ones and they tried some of the hollow plant stems. But I was surprised  to find that they were not only picky, but rather modern in their choices.. rejecting the rustic and twiggy natural homes,  preferring the modern prefabricated regular and clean cardboard tubes..or is it that they are closer together and can maybe hear each other, perhaps they pass on information or just generate some extra heat creating a warm, welcoming and safe little colony. Who knows what goes on in those little bee brains?

The wind chimes hang outside the kitchen window and on 25th May I heard a very loud resonating buzzing. Thinking it was a bee caught in a web or in some sort of distress I looked everywhere. But it was a Mason bee trying out a windchime for size. It persisted for about 3 days, returning exploring, 
weighing up the pros and cons and presumably enjoying the vibe!

MAY

Then hurahhh… back in the bee house on the 25th May one nest was completed, a time to celebrate!

 

On the 26th two..

Mason bees need mud to construct their nests and in a north facing corner of the garden we have a dank miserable patch of earth which I call Death Valley. Nothing grows there. It is always damp and always in shade, but I have learnt over the past few months that almost everything has its uses and it proved to be the Girls’ favourite mud-gathering quarry. And not only my little colony but Mason bees came from all around.  At the height of nest building activity about a month ago I counted 25 bees busily running around and collecting little balls of building clay for walling up their nest cells.

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They gather up balls of  mud in their strong jaws and carry it back to the nest. The ground is alive and buzzing! If you were to stumble upon this activity by accident you might well be alarmed...but the gentle Mason bees only have nest building on their minds!

JUNE
They got off to a good start in May and we counted 9 tubes filled.. then everything stopped at the beginning of June. There was no activity for days and again  I wondered if they had died…but on a sunny day they started to reappear.

19th June

 

Slowly little black horned faces and twitching antennae came to the entrances of the tubes. They shelter in the empty holes..some even using my nicely drilled logs!

They waited until the sun warmed them up and sometimes seemed to confer before flying off to resume collecting pollen, nectar and mud.

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There was a rush of activity in the few sunny days we had, they returned to Death Valley to collect mud and sealed up at least 15 more holes.

Since then the weather has been off and on and I have been busy. Sometimes I would pop out to see how they were doing. Little black faces sometimes yellow with pollen peered out from holes and occasionally one would emerge and wait for the sun before flying off. But activity has been declining. 

27th June, Today

Today was warm and  there is still some activity but perhaps only a couple of bees are left. To date they have completed or partly completed 35 cardboard tubes, one drilled hole in the log and one plant stem.

But the remaining girls are looking a little shabby, a little bald and definitely faded. They are a little lack lustre and quiet.


mason bee poppy

One unexpectedly revelled in the pollen rich stamens of an early morning poppy.  The other stopped to rest on a sunny borage leaf.

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She stayed on the leaf for about 15 minutes. A good opportunity to immortalise this hard working bee.  You can see quite clearly one of her strange little horns.

This evening just one bee was digging…

And here are my last two girls…at 7.00pm, doing what they do so beautifully and doing what gives them their name.
These are the Mason Bees… they build… they do not destroy!

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At 7.30 pm they had finished. Their newly completed tubes are dark and still wet.

They may not be the prettiest of bees but we have become extremely fond of them. They are as wild as a wild thing can be but we look out for them.  I don’t know how long they will continue before they just run out of steam. With the turn of the year they are on the wane. In their carefully provisioned and sealed nest cells their grubs will spin cocoons and become  tiny adult bees and wait. They will wait until the winter is over. Wait for a beautiful spring day next year to start a new generation of delightful Osmia rufas, the gorgeous and adorable red mason bees.  

See you then little ones :)

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Common Carder Bee and honeyed Melittis melissophyllum

The pretty and bee-friendly Melittis melissophyllum rejoices in the robust and no nonsense common name of Bastard Balm. I can only assume it is called this because it is “similar”to the other balms… but not quite the ticket. It shares its Latin “bee” root with another balm, Melissa officinalis the lovely lemon balm which I have grown from seed and  planted in the Empty Garden. They are both part of the huge Lamiaceae mint family, much loved of bees.
I am going to try to grow Bastard balm and have some seed for next year but have also ordered some plants from the excellent Bee Happy Plants. Their seeds have been very slow to germinate this year but I am still hopeful. Not sure it will like my heavy clay soil but it’s worth a go.

The arrival of any flowers here in the Empty Garden has been agonisingly slow, this miserable weather has not helped at all and time to plant and sow has been very limited, but it has been fascinating to observe which bees have used which flowers.. more on that and garden progress soon. 

But meanwhile here is the second bee commission for Liz, the gorgeous Common Carder Bee, Bombus pascuorum about to take a sip of nectar from the honey leaved honey flower..

First thumbnail rough..

pasc and melittis melissophylum sm

Finished painting..which worked out a fair bit larger!

I love to watch how bees reach out with their font legs for landing. It’s an unexpectedly human characteristic. These past windy days have made 
landing a very hit and miss affair, and they really need those little hooked feet for hanging on.

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Common Carder Bee, Bombus pascuorum and Bastard Balm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP 12” x12”

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

National Pollinator Week USA and Time to Stand and Stare.

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They are celebrating National Pollinator Week in the USA! Do go to the Pollinator Partnership site for a huge amount of excellent info about pollination, the pollinators and how to help them. I know this is slanted at the USA but many of the plants and principles apply here.

NativeBeesNumberedPoster

You can download this wonderful bee poster which has info about some of the over 4400 USA native bee species. I see some old friends here from my early bee watching days.

Their excellent regional PDFs give overviews of habitats, plant lists and the species of pollinators specific to each area.

Reading through the advice to gardeners they remind us to “Tolerate a little mess”.. Unruly bits of garden are good for pollinators and to “provide safe access to clean water”

It’s about caring, isn’t it? About them, not what the neighbours think of the garden or getting the next must-have hybrid flower that has neither scent nor nectar. It’s about doing just a little bit to help.

Then, in big bold letters at the end of the PDF is this

“NOTICE THE CHANGES THAT YOU HAVE HELPED TO CREATE”

Having done your research, raised your pollinator friendly plants, dug the pond and slogged away at the planting and digging, do take a moment to stop and look.
William Henry Davies’ lovely simple poem “Leisure” may now be considered a slightly jokey piece of writing but taking the time to just stand and stare at your garden, at all the strange and wonderful things that are going on there, is infinitely rewarding.

“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.”

There are some sheep just down the lane from us, we watched them doing nothing the other day, they were just staring and chewing. Today, I intend ..sheep-like.. to go and stare for a while at my now not-so-empty garden.

Yes, William “A poor life this is ” indeed,  if we make no time to stand and stare.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Tawny Mining Bee again..and some painterly anxieties.

In between other work I have also been working on two more bee commissions. It has been a chance to paint again the beautiful Tawny Mining bee Andrena fulva and the Common Carder bee Bombus pascuorum. 

I often work on several pieces at once and have learnt, the hard way, that it’s good to put things aside for a while. Unsatisfactory things can be forgotten but glaring inadequacies may be illuminated. So it’s a double edged sword. I put them away, completely out of sight, hidden away in a folder and always get them out again with some trepidation.

Years ago I used to work late into the night, worrying away at some problem detail. I would go to bed in a happy self deluded state, only to realise next morning how completely dreadful it all was. Now I don’t do that. I put the work away for a while and try to forget about it and then reassess with a fresh eye.

So it’s been about a week since I saw these two paintings and mercifully they seemed just fine.

But of course there is always another half a day of faffing about, primping and adjusting, after which you will be MUCH more satisfied and the casual observer (aka long suffering partner) will see no difference at all..

Well?  How does that look now??” 

“Fine , just fine..”

“Oh only fine? what about the bit I changed?”

“What bit?” 

“Well the hairs on the left tibia of course..”

“Ahhh.. That bit. Well that looks fine too”.

“You think it’s Ok then?”

“Yes”

“I mean, better than before?”

“Yes”

“Was it not very good then?”

“It was and is just fine “……. and so it goes on..

But inevitably, at some uncertain point,  even when racked with indecision and doubt, you have to say….”That’s it!..Finished!”

 

Actually  I do really like these two.. :)

So here is my “Foxy Lady of the Bee World” again.

I saw her in the spring, taking a break on the clematis which is twining around the trellis on the shed. She was basking in the sun, a little spot of fiery foxy two tone red...just gorgeous!

first rough…

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and the (maybe….almost) finished  painting.. 

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but I still have a day to go before delivery….

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Wool Carder Painting step by step….almost there.

I am back to commissions and some commercial work this week but hope to have a little more time for just sketching and drawing. When teaching my workshops I am a bit of a nag about drawing and practise, everyday if possible, so I really must practise what I preach!!

But it’s back to completing the Wool Carder Bee first. I almost finished it for the Meadow Days show and was able to have it on display and chat about the process of drawing and painting a bee.

Here are a few stages of the work:
Referring back to my preliminary sketches I lightly draw the bee on the frighteningly clean and pristine paper. This always makes me very nervous. Thank goodness it is tough stuff because I still do quite a bit of re-drawing and adjusting on the paper. 
i.e. was not quite sure where I wanted that front leg…..

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Leg adjusted, I put in first colour guides.

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Stages 3 and 4 are just building up colour depth and getting the eye right. It’s important to me that I have the eye done fairly soon. “Eye contact” with your painting helps make a bond between you and your work!! It’s a bit of a responsibility creating something!! 

and by this stage I have erased up some of the pencil lines!

Stages 5 is more building up and I use quite a bit of lifting out and add white gouache to paint the lovely long silky hairs that this bee has on the underside of her thorax.

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The almost last stage is the wings, sorting out the detail of the abdomen markings and the antennae.. when I pray for a steady hand!  There is nowhere to hide mistakes made here!

stage 6 bg

I then leave the bee and get on with the background. I will go back to do further adjustments later on if I see any glaring mistakes. It’s good to leave things alone for a while!

The pencil work takes a long LONG time as, again, I do draw and redraw on the paper and it is forgiving, but only up to a point. Some times I rough out the leaves and flowers on tracing paper and position them here and there to check the composition.  I didn’t take stage images as that would be very boring..

stage 7 bg 

Its almost finished now. Just a few adjustments to do and  I need to add a small image of Wallsworth Hall, home of Nature in Art gallery.

I have sketched it roughly on tracing paper to position it….It might go about here!
stage 8  bg

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I will be finishing it this week…unless, perchance, we have SUN??? Hope springs eternal …….

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Jubilee Sunshine and Showers at Easton.

.. and howling gales and torrential rain! But were we put off?? No. Undaunted by the weather the Jubilee Meadow Days had many lovely, if soggy, visitors and fellow exhibitors.
As always I met some fascinating people and learnt more about honey bees from the bee keepers and much more about wildflowers, especially from Jackie who had  a “Flowers for Bugs” stand nearby and the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust whose  “Life on the Verge” leaflet about the flora of roadside verges was fascinating. They are conducting a huge survey and you can find out more on their website.  http://www.lifeontheverge.org.uk

We also had two excellent days of my Bugs, Beasts and Botanicals workshops and thanks to the three Janes, Jean, the two Sues, Elaine, Bo, Ian, Tony for not only turning out in such appalling weather but actually going outside to work in the rain and wind. I am eternally grateful to you all for coming and making the days such fun. There will be more workshops at Easton Walled Gardens to come.

I always mean to take photos of the classes but always forget.. but here at least are the awesome Allington Morris who, because of the driving rain were forced to dance indoors. They squeezed into a tiny space in Coach House, my bees in the background.. It was wonderful! Happy Jubilee All!!!