Let’s help the BEES…shall we?? It’s so very easy.

First bee sightings
I haven’t really been looking for bees yet but I know from BWARS reports many have been active in the south over this mild winter. On Saturday I saw my first 2014 bumble bees and a honey bee here the garden, along with a big bee mimic hoverfly.
The bumbles were the Buff tailed Bumble Bee, Bombus terrestris and the Early Bumble Bee Bombus pratorum. My bee friendly neighbour has an early clematis and we both have winter honeysuckles and the wild bird cherry is just coming into bloom.
The bees were busy around them all. We were talking today over the fence. “When I saw the bees were back it just made me smile” she said. Me too Carole!


My painting of the big beautiful Bombus terrestris on wonderful bee friendly early Mahonia.

The last bee of 2014 was this Bombus terrestris I photographed on Nov 30th on very late flowering comfrey.
The comfrey is such a star.



It was very depressing to hear of the discovery of yet more  new problems for Bumble Bees last week. It has just made me more determined to redouble my efforts this year to help wild bees and promote their conservation. I am just a small scale gardener and the easiest, most effective and cheapest thing that people like us can do is to plant more bee friendly flowers…and goodness,  that is easy enough.

What I am doing…
I am thinking of how I can get people to join me in planting more BFF’s both here in the village and wherever they live. Maybe I will set up something online … but for now here is what I am doing

1 Bee house clean out, repair, reassemble and restock the solitary bee house with new tubes. Maybe build an extra one…Yes!

2 Order some new bee friendly perennials. Lots of online shops, and garden centres now display the helpful RHS pollinator friendly logo.


There are also specialist suppliers. like Bee Happy Plants who I have bought from in the past.

3 Seed checking I am checking my seeds to see what annuals I might need to sow or restock. I save seeds from poppies, phacelia and  anything else I can think of that might help. It’s a random business but I end up with lots of seeds which I generally scatter on newly dug bits of the front garden. We are slowly getting rid of the grass out there.

4 Looking to see which flowers and trees the bees are visiting
We garden on very VERY heavy clay and the previous owners did not garden but put down grass. We are digging it up… slowly. I am not used to heavy clay and not all of the lovely bee friendly flowers will grow here. It is the beginning of year three for us here and I am beginning to see which plants are happy and which are not. Thistles absolutely love it..sigh…

5 Bee Fostering Collecting boxes for possible Bumble Bee fostering. My bee friendly local pest control guy Mathew brought 4 colonies to me last year. He is very VERY reluctant to move Bumble Bees and tries to persuade people they are benign, but some people just don’t listen. Three made it through to a certain extent. One lucorum, one very successful lapidarius and a huge terrestris colony. It was very rewarding.

Plant Lists For now if you are dithering about some new plants look for the many online resources and suppliers of Bee Friendly Plants. The RHS’ two PDFs Perfect for Pollinators: Garden Plants  and  Perfect for Pollinators: Wild Flowers are a good start.

Print them off… give them to your friends… pin them up at school, community centre, leisure centre, gardening club…anywhere….everywhere…  More bee encouragement to come… Oh and luckily my Tree Following trees, Willows and Horse Chestnuts, are very good for pollinators!!

I also decided my next bee painting will be Bombus Ruderatus the beautiful black version of the Large Garden Bumble Bee which I saw a couple of years ago in Dads garden. I made a sketch at the time but, especially as it is a fairly local species it’s time I made a good study.

A Box of Bees and more…

It’s been quite busy in the Garden this last two weeks. At last some Bumble bees are out and about. Busiest have been the tiny Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) workers. They have been everywhere on every flower they can manage.  A patch of phacelia has just come into flower and because they are so small they find it very difficult to navigate the spiky stamens and have to adopt a head first, dive in strategy. Bigger bees have no problems.

A tiny Early Bumblebee worker contemplating a tricky landing through the long stamens of the phacelia. It is so attractive to them that they don’t give up easily


Head first, in-between the spikes.

This bigger heavier Carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) easily accessing the nectar of this lovely green manure plant which seeded down from last year.

And there are other bumble bees too:

A Garden Bumblebee (B hortorum) worker on the hardy geraniums


A Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum) on the cotoneaster

A Box of Red Tailed Bumblebees

Just over a week ago now my very kind friend Matthew arrived at the door with a large buzzing plastic bag containing a tiny new Bombus lapidarius nest complete with about 10 cells 6 little workers and the magnificent Queen.
Matthew had been asked to move the nest and not wanting to destroy it asked if I could look after it. You bet!

red tailed nest

The nest in the new box with some extra dried grass.  You can see the large beautiful Queen at the top. They were very busy attending to the cells and so not too concerned about me and the camera. I think things might be different now!

So the nest and its few occupants have been (rather gingerly) transferred to a box which I hope will allow for a reasonable size colony and added to the bee house. It’s above the ground and hopefully out of the reach of mice.
I am very glad to report that there seems to be quite a bit of coming and going and at last the chive flowers which have been out for ages are getting some attention.

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Little red tailed worker on the chives, The flame red colour of these new bees in simply stunning.

Anyway I have given them the best chance I can. They have flowers, shelter and someone looking out for them.

And not forgetting the solitary bees…. The mason bees have been filling up holes in the bee house and everywhere else. The Hairy Footed flower bees are, I think all done. Their strawberry pot home now filled up for the second year. Here is a lovely little solitary mining bee which my bee guru Andrew thinks may be Andrena chrysosceles.


You can see how tiny it is by my thumb to the left. She stayed put very obligingly for a couple of photos.

And, joy of joys, at Easton last week, the so very chic female Grey Mining bee, Andrena cineraria with elegant black and white hairs on her thorax and glossy black abdomen. A little film star of the wild bee world.

From a sunny day last week at Easton, not the best photo in the world but lovely to see her.

I hope all your bees are buzzing and things warming up for summer and, yes,  I have been working as well as bee watching…honestly…more of that soon…

The Early Bumble bee, Bombus pratorum

In my box of bee “models”, which have proved to be so surprisingly popular at my Buzz shows, I have a little family.

It’s a Bombus pratorum trio; the queen, little fluffy male and a tiny neat worker. If anyone is frightened of bees, learning about this endearing family usually does the trick. The males are particularly attractive and they were all over the cotoneaster in the churchyard here last year, so I chose the male for this set of paintings.

They are also delightfully hairy, with long silky hair which sticks up here and there. There’s a bit of a rakish air about them, quite different from the short haired B lapidarius who looks like a piece of velvet.
They are also a lemony yellow, not the orange yellow of Bombus terrestris. Laura at Bumblebee.org. (just the nicest bumblebee site on the net) says this:

“Once a male has left the nest he does not return. His sole aim is to mate, and he will patrol a circuit laying down a scent at strategic spots in order to attract a newly emerged queen who will find the scent so irresistible that she will allow him to mate with her. The only other thing he does is drink nectar. So he will stay outside all night, usually clinging to the underside of a flower for some protection from rain etc. Often he will choose the same flower night after night. Then once the morning sun comes out he has just enough strength to climb – in the UK they are often too cold to fly – up to the flower entrance to drink some nectar and warm up ready for more scent patrolling.”


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The tiny, fluffy, Bombus pratorum on cotoneaster,
Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP.

Big Bee Value at B&Q

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The DIY store B&Q sometimes have some very good plant bargains, (US readers think “Home Depot”)  Yesterday in Huntingdon a stand of marked down heathers were basking in the early afternoon sun and were covered with bees!

I counted 12 x B terrestris, 2 x B lucorum, 1 x B pratorum, 3 x honey bees and had my first sighting of a solitary bee this year. (Hopefully ID to come.) Some were busy feeding and some tucked in between the flowers, sleeping. For once I happened to have my camera with me so took a few quick snaps.

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2 Buff Tailed Bumble Bees, B terrestris

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B pratorum, The Early Bumble Bee

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A rather blurry B lucorum, The White Tailed Bumble bee.

Also enjoying the heather were quite a few flies including two hover flies, which, after my one day course I can now hopefully ID. One was Scaeva pyrastri, the little black and white striped one ( no photo sadly) and this one,

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which I guess is an Eristalis, a Drone Fly.

Heather is brilliant for bees and there were reports on BWARS, of bees on the heather in Windsor Great Park all through the winter. See Winter Bumble Bees thread on the Forum.

On a neighboring stand, high up, were some small narcissi being visited by both B terrestris and this gorgeous B Hypnorum.

B hypnorum, Tree Bumble Bee.

I had not really thought of daffs as a particularly good bee plant but I guess these early bees will just find nectar and pollen where they can. They were also visiting primroses, and big flowered pansies.

It is quite a small plant department at Huntingdon but does demonstrate the advantage of having lots of flowering plants all together, making it a worth while stop off for the bees. My three crocuses are not quite doing the job!

Bees in your Bonnet

The bees were delightful to watch and I stayed for about 20 minutes, the staff mercifully just ignored me and although I am not too fond of heathers I did buy a box, (how could I not!) to help fill the Empty Garden along with a great bargain sedum, pretty little “Rose Carpet” which will, I hope, thrive in a sunny spot and be enjoyed by many insects.

I had to gently shake the heathers so as not to inadvertently take home a sleeping bee and I also had to shake my hair because, as well as the heathers, the large drowsy bees are also partial to my hair, which is, to put it mildly rather fluffy and unruly.

Although I seem unable to fight off the inevitable slide into 3rd age eccentricity, I am just not ready to arrive at a shop counter, albeit to buy plants, with bees in my hair .. no, really, not yet.
Perhaps I should take it as a compliment that these lovely creatures find me a reassuring resting point.
I remember years ago waking up one spring morning having slept with the window open, to find a large bumble bee next to me on the pillow. It was snuggled up in my hair, buzzing softly and was rather grumpy when asked to move.

Bees in your hair. It is the stuff of limericks.. where is Edward Lear when you need him?

Bombus pratorum and the Hairiness of Bees

For this six bee commission I  have decided to paint the male of this species. I saw so many of them last year and they are simply enchanting. They were zipping around the tiny flowers of the cotoneaster in the churchyard here.

They are easy to spot because of their bright lemony yellow colour and orangy tail, yellow moustache and long silky hair. They are extremely pretty.

The Hairiness of Bees

Bumble bees differ quite considerably in the quality of their hair. B hortorum for example, has quite long scruffy hair whereas B lapidarius  has closer short dense hair more like velvet. The hair may differ between male and female.
The term used for bumble bee hair is “pile” (which always makes me think of carpet).
The hairs are referred to as “setae” and have a particular quality. Here is the explanation from the excellent BumbleBee.org which is packed with expert info.

“The other adaptation of the hair is that many are branched or feathery enabling more pollen to stick to them, as can be seen in the scanning electron microscope images (SEM) right, and below.




“When flying a bee builds up an electrostatic charge, the parts of a flower are usually well earthed, the stigma (the bit that leads to the ovary) more so than other flower parts, so as the bee enters the flower the pollen is attracted to the bee’s hairs and even grains of pollen that are not touched by the hairs can jump a few millimetres to the nearest hair. When a pollen covered bee enters a flower, because the stigma is better earthed than the other parts of the flower the charged pollen is preferentially attracted to it. So even if the large, hairy, bumblebee fails to brush against the stigma, the pollen can jump the few millimetres necessary for pollination.”  Text and images from Bumblebee.org

Below another Scanning Electron Microscope photo of the hairs of US species B fraternus from Duke University.

Bumblebee_Bombus_fraternus_sem1_hair duke uni

A photo submitted to Springwatch in 2010 demonstrates the attraction of pollen to bees!


Little bee © Mark Johnson from the 2010 Springwatch Flickr group!

Bombus Pratorum and Cotoneaster

The cotoneaster, where I watched the bees last May, has almost overtaken a particularly nice old grave in a part of the churchyard where wildflower spotting signs are displayed in the summer.
I am assuming it’s a Cotoneaster horizontalis, one I particularly like with its spreading, low growing habit, the tiny dainty flowers and leaves contrasting with the lichen covered gnarly branches. There are a couple of small ones in the garden here. I hope there will be bees!

A little B pratorum male.

Working out the pose and composition.

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Mr Fluffy :)…. Painting the hair slightly ruffled hair will be a challenge.

Bombus hypnorum, here, there and everywhere.

The Natural History Museum list six bumblebees, “The Big Six” as being the most common bumble bees in the UK. But I think very soon they will have to add another because although this pretty bee is a relative newcomer to the UK, it is spreading fast. It’s the Tree Bumble Bee, Bombus hypnorum  which was first recorded in the UK in 2001.

It has very distinctive colouring, a ginger thorax and a  black abdomen with a bright white tail. Someone said it looks as though it has been dipped in white paint..it’s true.

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B Hypnorum colour key from Paul Williams great interactive bee identification charts at the Natural History Museum here.

I saw it last year in London and I have seen them everywhere I have been this year.
First in Dad’s garden in March.  Then at Easton on the 15th April buzzing around the plum blossom on a sunny wall.


B hypnorum Easton Walled Garden,  photo Val Littlewood

Then today I walked up to the Church in the village and saw one feeding on an arching bony cotoneaster, its flowers barely noticeable, which was crouching over one of the old graves there.

It’s a lovely and slightly unkempt churchyard. I like to wander around there. The wild flowers and unmown areas are great for bees.

hyp grafham church

The hypnorum above, accommodatingly showing its pretty white painted tail, was waving a warning leg at a little B Pratorum who had come too close.

The diminutive flowers of the cotoneaster were humming with them. They are tiny and so bright, a brilliant acid yellow as opposed to  the tawny yellow of the hypnorum. I wonder if they are newly hatched. They were very busy and whizzed about rather too quickly for me to get a good photo.

prat2      b prat

Bombus pratorum on cotoneaster, Grafham Churchyard

They are really delightful little bees. I had planned to get a painting of the Hypnorum done for this summer’s shows because people will be able to see them in many areas of the UK and they are very pretty.  I have just sketched it out for now and plan to show it feeding on the early plum blossom at Easton.

Easton Hypnorum sketch

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Meanwhile the Humming Cottage here is still humming, but our charming little Osmia rufa mason bees are slowing down. A few faded and balding bees are still getting into the house. I put them on the chives outside the back door.

osmis rufa faded

They bury their heads in the flowers and then, suitable revived, fly off.
I will miss them.

Two Lovely Bees for Liz; The Early Bumble Bee and the Grey Mining Bee.

The last few weeks have been very busy and, with hardly any internet connection, very frustrating blogwise.
However in my makeshift studio at my father’s house, (rickety picnic table with clip light fixed to hoe handle) I could at least work on my two bee commissions.

It gives me great pleasure to work on commissions because they are a chance to make paintings which are very personal to your clients. We will discuss the whys and wherefores at some length and this collaborative approach means they will have a painting which is just for them and has a resonance and meaning beyond just the image.

So Liz and I had discussed which bee and why and decided on the Grey Mining Bee which is such a favourite with its beautiful black and white silky coat and secondly the lovely Early Bumble Bee with her smart red rump. There were several things which made these choices special to Liz.

She particularly wanted the ginkgo leaves to be included as she has a magnificent old ginkgo tree growing in her garden. So the leaves I drew are from her tree.
The hawthorn leaves were from the local hedgerow and the two little bees had been found near Lincoln, which was a strange coincidence because Liz once lived near there many years ago. I had written about the Grey Mining Bee Andrena cineraria  before (see “The Glamorous Grey Mining Bee”)

Here is Liz’ bee hovering above a sprig of hawthorn, a favourite flower with this and many other early bees.

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The Grey Mining Bee Andrena cineraria and Hawthorn.

Watercolour and pencil 9 x 9” I drew and wrote about handsome the Early Bumble Bee here Bombus pratorum …and Mr. Sladen” and included Sladen’s poignant piece about the death of the queen. It’s a lovely piece of writing as is all the writing in his wonderful book about bumble bees, The Humble Bee’ It’s Life History and How To Domesticate It.

I now have the reprinted copy which also contains the facsimile of his first handmade bee book. It’s completely charming.

Here then is Liz’ Early Bumble Bee flying up through the ginkgo leaves which are catching a light spring breeze. Bees do not forage from ginkgo trees but Liz’ garden looked to be a haven for wild bees and I just know she will be seeing these pretty bees in the spring next year.

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The Early Bumblebee Bombus pratorum and Ginkgo leaves.

Watercolour and pencil 9 x 9”. I am so delighted when people commission a bee. It’s not perhaps the most usual request but gives me hope that bees are getting a higher profile and winning a well deserved place in people’s hearts.
I am really looking forward to the day when bees outsell fluffy kittens…OK, I know… I may have to wait a while :).

There is more work to be done to popularise bees, their undoubted charm and tireless good works and I will be continuing that next year both in the UK and in the USA… But, for the next few weeks I will be somewhere completely different.

I will be seeing what is happening in New Orleans for a while! Bees ? I hope so. What else? Who knows. It will just be a voyage of discovery!

Bombus pratorum: the Early Bumble Bee, Questing Queens, Nests and the wonderful Mr.Sladen.

Bombus pratorum ( L Pratum meadowland). Although known as the “ Early Nesting Bumble Bee” this pretty little Bumble Bee is not the earliest to be seen in the UK but usually one of the first.
Also confusingly, there are considerable colour variations but a rough guide is that queens, workers and males all have orangey red tails, and the male has more yellow hair on the thorax and of course the wonderful yellow moustache.

They are small, short tongued bees who cannot easily access the nectar from vetches, preferring the shallower flowers of the daisy family, dandelions and in the spring, willow flowers. They are described as having a characteristically rounded dumpy shape.

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Left Male 11-13 mm: Right: Queen 15-17mm and similarly coloured workers 10-12mm

Queens and Nests Normally active from March the big handsome Queen bees will be seen cruising for suitable nesting spots. She will not be too fussy about where she makes her nest and like many other bumble bees will take advantage of abandoned mouse nests, tangles of dead grass, empty bird boxes or old nests.
I have seen big bumble bees meandering around in the spring in that seemingly aimless way, I realise now they they were just queens looking for good nest sites. Again, from the excellent Bumblebee.org (from whom I have learnt so much!)

“It is at this time that you most commonly find bumblebees straying into your house and behaving strangely. They will investigate any dark corner, flying slowly and sometimes even disappearing down holes, or even into pockets. They seem oblivious to their surroundings, and not at all interested in flowers.”

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I found this charming little illustration from a version of the equally charming Anna Botsford Comstock’s “Handbook of Nature”. She writes;

“In early May one of the most delightful of spring visitations is one of these great buzzing queens flying low over the freshening meadows”

Bumble bee nests are not as regimented and conformist as those of the honey bee. They look like a jumble of bubbles, rather like the inside of a giant Aero, but are still beautifully and ingeniously crafted. Karl von Frisch in Animal Architecture” describes two of his collection of nests;

I have in my possession a wagtails’s nest from a sheltered spot under the eaves of a boathouse. In its soft padded hollow I found not eggs but the nest of a bumble bee. An even more cozy abode was chosen by a colony of early bumble bees ( bombus pratorum) that made their nest in a basket of chicken feathers. when I opened it I found the feathers immediately surrounding the hollow place that contained the the comb, were stuck together to form a thick crust, which made an excellent insulating layer between the nest cavity proper and the fluffy mass of the feathers.. … I assumed that the material was wax or resin collected from trees…but wondered how the bees had managed to work such hard substances into the loose mass of feathers”

But thirty years later when Frisch had a chemical analysis made he was surprised to find this crust was made of sugar!

“The bumble bees had obviously used either nectar or thickened honey from their storage jars to moisten the feather so that the whole dried to a dense solid crust “ Clever clever bees!

There are many illustrations of bumble bee nests but this is a particular favourite of mine. The nest of Bombus pratorum from the beautifully illustrated 1923 Die Europäischen Bienen by H Friese from excellent German wild bee site here

bombus pratorum

I have also been reading Frederick W L Sladen’s ‘The Humble Bee’ It’s Life History and How To Domesticate It.

People who read my blog will know how much I love the lyrical writing of naturalists from earlier days, just for the affection and gentleness which I find lacking in much modern writing. This beautiful piece about the quiet end of the Bombus pratorum queen had me in tears !

The End of the Old Queen “In the case of B. pratorum, and probably of other species whose colonies end their existence in the height of summer, the aged queen often spends the evening of her life very pleasantly with her little band of worn-out workers. They sit together on two or three cells on the top of the ruined edifice, and make no attempt to rear any more brood. The exhausting work of bearing done, the queen’s body shrinks to its original size, and she becomes quite active and youthful-looking again. This well-earned rest lasts for about a week, and death, when at last it comes, brings with it no discomfort. One night, a little cooler than usual, finding her food supply exhausted, the queen grows torpid, as she has done many a time in the early part of her career; but on this occasion, her life-work finished, there is no awakening.

Thank you Gloria from Pollinators Welcome and Square Metre for posting this.

More lovely writing from Mr Sladen soon.

The Painting

My Queen Bee however is alive and well .. I have not quite finished the background yet but again I have run out of time today. I am painting her contemplating a suitable nest site, her busy life all ahead of her..


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Bombus pratorum the Early Bumble Bee.

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Watercolour and pencil .. not quite finished.. I blame it on Twitter!

Bumble Bee ID sketches

I have braved my freezing work room today and made some sketches of the BIG SIX British Bumble bees.

The lazy artist, that I often am, usually wants to miss out this stage of the work.
There are very nice examples of Bumble bee patterns on the internet which I could just print out.  But, when I do take the trouble, I am always glad because sketching them will help me remember the differences.

Queens,Workers and Males.  I have said before that I am not a scientific illustrator but I do like to try to get things right and one problem of drawing Bumble bees is that they vary, male, to female, to worker, sometimes in colour, size and pattern.

And then there are some variations within each species.

So a reference colour chart of males and queens/workers to refer to will be a help, along with a few notes of flowers etc.

Most of this information comes from the Natural History Museum’s site and the very excellent Bumblebee.org, which I have quoted from before.

bbbees 2     bbbees1

The welcome sun glancing across my sketchbook gets to my work room at 4 pm, before that it is icy, but they have promised a change tomorrow…hurrah ..

and, should I forget these temperatures when I am struggling to keep cool in the summer, I took this photo of our icy apartment block roof this morning…

I know, it’s nothing compared with some parts of both the USA and the UK but it’s still hellish cold..if that’s possible :)..