Honey Bee and Lavender

Bee watching is one of lifes gentle and absorbing pastimes and something which should be prescribed as a perfect stress reliever. This past summer I spent many hours watching different bees coming and going on the lavender.

So, for this commission I wanted to portray this little honey bee just as I had seen them, busy in amongst the lavender stalks and enthusiastically throwing their front legs up in the air as they are about to land.
As well as my own observations I had the help of Elivin’s bee, Dads lavender, and some scientific research about how bees land. The research really just confirms what common sense and observation tells you and if you watch bees fairly closely you can see for yourself how they land and how they use their feet and antennae.

But the study “The Moment before Touchdown: Landing Manoeuvres of the Honeybee Apis mellifera”  by Mandyam Srinivasan is interesting, (you can read the whole study here) The Journal of Experimental Biology here reported on the study:

…….Srinivasan began wondering what happens in the final moments of a touchdown.
Flies landing on a ceiling simply grab hold with their front legs and somersault up as they zip along, but Srinivasan knew that a bee’s approach is more sedate. …..Initially, the bees approached from almost any direction and at any speed; however, as they got closer to the test platforms, they slowed dramatically, almost hovering, until they were 16 mm from the platform, when they ground to a complete halt, hovering for anything ranging from 50 ms to over 140 ms.
When the surface was horizontal or inclined slightly, the bees’ hind legs were almost within touching distance of the surface, so it was simply a matter of the bee gently lowering itself and grabbing hold with its rear feet.

However, when the insects were landing on surfaces ranging from vertical to inverted `ceilings’, their antennae were closest to the surface during the hover phase.
When the antennae grazed the surface, this triggered the bees to reach up with the front legs, grasp hold of the surface and then slowly heave their middle and hind legs up too.

bees landing

In conclusion: “During the actual touchdown, bees simply use the appendage closest to the landing surface to make first contact – that is, the hind legs in the case of horizontal surfaces, and the front legs or antennae in the case of vertical or inverted surfaces.”

It doesn’t really surprise me that bees are sensible and adopt the easiest possible landing strategies without any of the showy back flips of flies. But the  use of their antennae is fascinating. Really useful things, antennae!

Honey bee and Lavender Coming into land on a sprig of lavender is my little worker honey bee, pollen baskets part full and front legs raised in anticipation of touchdown.


Hbee bg

“Honey Bee amongst Lavender” watercolour and pencil on Arches HP 9”x 9”

It has been a lovely commission to work on especially as I have been working on it in between entertaining my father. As a beekeeper many years ago he was interested in this painting and it’s slow development has been a jumping off point for general honey bee discussions, anecdotes and fond memories of times long past.

The beehives are still behind the garage. Next spring I intend to brave the Sleeping Beauty barrier of brambles and explore a little. Dad and I have been wondering what little bee or bug may have taken advantage of this ready made if crumbling shelter. I think there will be a big gang of slaters.. but who knows, there may even be a bee or two?

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 : http://en.wikivisual.com/index.php/Sporopollenin

You can find pollen colour guides on the internet. There is an excellent interactive chart on the Bristol Beekeepers site, http://www.bristolbeekeepers.org.uk/.   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!

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 sm

lav flower sm

A (hardy) lavender sprig … pencil

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 blossom..spot 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

Bee Flower Notes.

To accompany the bees in the exhibition I am hoping to include some notes about the plants they are associated with and which they rely on for both nectar and pollen.

Visual notes are better than written notes, however sketchy, and they will add a bit of colour to the show.

Really these will be just larger versions of the flower notes I was making before, here.

This, I know, will not be the most riveting post but I use my blog as a sort of online notebook as much as anything else.
Writing things down does help me clarify my thoughts and then I can get on, which is rather important as I have been dithering about it all for 5 days now.

The dilemma has been about how to categorize the flowers. I have 6 large frames available and so can divide the flowers into categories.. but how? There are so many possibilities. I tried many different combinations from colours to locations to families. But in the end I thought of what I would like to see as a non specialist and what I would find interesting and useful.

So , the Flowers One very important thing for bees is to keep the supply of nectar and pollen running through the year so three frames will have:
1 Early Season plants x 8 including crocus, hawthorn, snowdrops, forget me nots.
2 Mid Season plants x 8 including stachys, dead nettle, foxglove, scabious.
3 Late Season plants x 8 including aster, ivy, sedum, sunflower. Weeds and wild flowers are very important, so one frame for those:
4 Weeds and Wildflowers x 8 including dandelions, thistles, and cow parsley. Herbs are another important group and of course are just the loveliest plants to have in the garden, so one frame for herbs:
5 Herbs x 8 including the king bee plant borage, chives, mints, rosemary etc Which leaves me with one….. this could be the edible plants that need bees for pollination or it could be trees.. not sure which yet.

There will be 8 small flower sketches in each frame and although that seems an awful lot to me to get completed in time, in the bee world this is only a fraction of the plants they use. There are many lists of bee friendly plants on the internet and it can get very very confusing, but there are definitely a few firm favourites.

The notes will be sketchy, not highly finished and detailed like the bees, but I need some practice because it means going from super smooth paper to a “not” finish and from the 00 sables to the wonderful but completely different Isaby wash brushes.

W&N series 7 00 sable at the top and two bendy Isaby wash brushes at the bottom. They are capable of beautiful expressive thick and thin brush strokes. The technique of using them is quite different.
With the small sables you “brush” your colour on and they have a springy tip with some resistance which helps you paint very accurately. With the wash brushes you float the colour on and use the tip to guide the paint.
You cant “ brush” with these as they have no resistance. They just bend and stay bent, as you can see, but they do have the most beautiful tip and hold lots of paint. So here are a couple of trials which may or may not make it to the show.

Pussy Willow, a vital early Spring source of nectar and pollen and don’t you just love to brush the willow catkins against your cheek?













Lavender.. important for Summer and early Autumn pollen and nectar and of course is gorgeous alone for its colour and heavenly scent.. These are 10 x 3.5” on Arches Not.

lavender sm

The Common Carder Bee and Lavender

Back in September while I was home in Lincolnshire I was beginning to take a bit more notice of the bees that were still around in the garden. There were the big bumbles and honey bees, but also lots of these pretty dainty gingery bees which I now know are Bombus pascuorum (L. Pascuum: of the meadow) the Common Carder Bee. They don’t look like the archetypal bumble bee because they are not so obviously striped and, like yesterdays B pratorum, are small and dainty.


pasc indentity sm

B Pascuorum: male 13 –14mm, left,  and Queen 16-18mm /worker 10-15mm right I watched them, one sun drenched afternoon, picking their way through the last of the lavender flowers which I had been sent to trim. (you can see the dead heads on the right.)

There were just a few remaining blossoms which I could not bring myself to cut down, much to my father’s bemusement and slight irritation! I left them, untidy stragglers that they were, for the bees.

my pasc lincs sept sm

What I now know is Bombus pascuorum on the remaining lavender in Lincs in September.

The bee above is, I am pretty sure, a male, due to the long antennae and I can’t see a pollen basket either.  They are called “carder bees” because of their habit of using “combed “ bits of vegetation and moss to cover over their nests which they will make in tussocky grass or in old deserted animal burrows.

They are very hairy little bees, never losing the thick tufty gingery hair on their thorax. Some bumble bees develop  a definite bald spot here, as did my bombus hortorum,  see my post “A Forlorn and Balding Bee”.

Again my source for nearly all my bumblebee info is from the excellent  Bumblebee.org. I sat and watched them for some time buzzing round the lavender and saw how they have a very endearing way of  swinging their little front legs forward when approaching a flower, preparing to land or grasp the flower.. so here is my carder bee approaching the last of the lavender.
carder sketch 2 carder bee sketch3

The Common Carder Bee, Bombus Pascuorum and Lavender 

bombus pascuorum sml

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP.  6 x 8 inches.

I realise that this is the last of the Bumble Bees I intended to paint for the exhibition, but of course there are others, and some very interesting ones, that we could see in the UK.
So I just might try to fit in a “Shrill Carder Bee” or the recently arrived “Tree Bumble Bee” or even the Short Haired Bumblebee who is coming back to us from New Zealand.. you can read all about these at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.