Bees at Leu Gardens

On Sunday Chris and I had walked around briefly around the Gardens without anything much in mind, but now I can’t seem to go anywhere without being distracted by bees.

We saw a huge queen American Bumble Bee Bombus pennsylvanicus, she was magnificent,  a few honey bees and  the wonderful green eyed carpenter bee, so today I took the morning off to go for a slower meander around to see what was happening.

The Gardens are slowly recovering from the terrible winter damage but many old friends have died and all the lovely frangipanis are withered stumps.
I wonder if they will be able to regenerate? It’s clear that things are a good month behind here as Chris and I were able to eat loquats from the tree.. last year they were ripe in  March.
There were some bees..not that many, but quite a few honey bees on the roses.. and then these. (The camera and its operator are not the best but it is a nice record of a sunny morning in May.)
On exactly the same patch of salvia,  a smaller Bombus pennsylvanicus the only bumble bee I saw today.


On Bulbine frutescens (also known as Bulbinella, Snake flower, Cat’s tail, Burn jelly plant) there were quite a few of these tiny bees, they seemed to be grey with a stripy abdomen,  very fast and difficult to photograph.
This was the best of many blurred or just empty frames! The plant itself is very interesting as it’s an old medicinal plant used for  skin conditions.. hence the name “burn jelly”


Next, resting  on a blackberry leaf was this little bee. Pollen baskets full and with blue eyes.


By another patch of salvia was this bee which I am assuming is a Megachile and the nearest match I can find is the Megachile lanata.

It was stopping every now and then for a brush up. It had very distinctive cream hairs on its face and was more gingery than any Megachile I have seen before.

crop 7    crop6


and then gorgeous old green eyes,  the gentle Southern Carpenter bee Xylocopa micans who was in exactly the same place as on Sunday too, on a pretty arching shrub which Joel thinks is a verbena of some sort. Its eyes are really extraordinarily huge!

crop 1      crop 2

Elegant wasps were floating around the bushes and flowers.

Here is a Black and Yellow Mud Dauber Sceliphron caementarium feeding on the fennel. Wasps are so much easier to photograph than bees!

wasp on fennel

There are dragonflies galore which all seem to have come out just now.
Sometimes they will stay still enough  for even my slow camera to get a shot. The most spectacular ones are the saddlebag dragonflies,  which are huge and whose dark wing bases making their body size appear enormous.

Although silhouetted against the sky this is one of the Red Saddlebags Tramea onusta


then there are the little skimmers with the spotted wings

dragonfly crop

I will try to get some positive  ID on the bees.. Bugguide is my friend!

More Megachile..The Lovely Leafcutter Bee again.

I have written before about these delightful bees in my post  “The Leafcutter Bee: Can  Opener of the Bee World” so no need to repeat myself, and I don’t have much time either.

I have made a rather slow start to this next lot of bees.
But you can, and should, go and watch two wonderful short films by the BBC Natural History Unit of these amazing bees chewing round holes in rose leaves and transporting the huge pieces back to their nests where they form them into leafy cocoons for their little ones.The speed is quite astonishing.
The films, complete with cooing wood pigeon soundtrack, are on the excellent site Arkive

Leafcutter bees don’t rely only on rose leaves but use also birch, ash, beech and many other leaves. (I have read that the serrated edge is significant but am not sure about it, but I can see how it might give them a good starting point).

Megachile concinna in Jamaica uses bougainvillea bracts and in the USA Megachile umatillensis uses evening primrose petals, how pretty!

There are several species in the UK but the most commonly seen are, Megachile centuncularis (the one I am painting), and Megachile willughbiella.

The Slow Megachile Painting Slow decisions… Day one… Tuesday

This particular painting has taken me an agonisingly long time.. mainly because I kept changing my mind. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to do, but now I have to consider the paintings as a set and make sure I get a variety of poses and compositions etc. My very first thumbnails done back in Feb were a good guide but I have already altered one or two.


First British Bee Thumbnails

I knew I wanted to include the rose leaves with the cut out circles because Megachile centuncularis is also known as the “rose leaf cutter bee” due to her partiality to roses.
So I made more thumbnails and initially chose to work on one with the bee flying away from the rose, mainly because I really wanted a more front face view.  But, if she were flying away from the leaves, she should really be carrying a piece of leaf.


I pondered all this, spent half a day going down this route and then I decided against it. The bees carry the leaves clasped between their jaws and held with their legs which does to be honest, look rather strange, especially if this is your first encounter with a leafcutter bee.

So I changed the view to her flying towards the rose in eager anticipation of a bit of leaf chewing…I had tried the wings in different positions too but liked the anticipation of the forward position, they are almost like welcoming open arms.


I am a bit sad to lose the engaging front view eye contact .. but it makes more sense.  Also,  as I did with the Leu Gardens exhibition I will be having explanatory notes to accompany the work, so I think I will include a drawing of her carrying the leaf there. But it has taken me a day to get this far.

Slow painting… Day two… Wednesday …

At the side of the board is one of my boxes of bees with a little leafcutter under the magnifying glass. It’s a really pretty bee with such personality. Like all of them they take a full day to draw out and paint. So much work for something so small!

desk and megachile      

Slow drawing…. Day three…  Thursday

I really thought today was going to be easy because all I have to do is draw the rose.. I went and found some rose leaves nearby, looked at my Leu photos for a nice single rose and then just couldn’t decide how to  arrange them together.

I tried what seemed like a million different variations of flower angles and leaf arrangements.. these are just two which I was quite happy with, Up a bit…. down a bit …


But  I eventually realised that I was uneasy with the scale.. so enlarged the rose a bit and then felt a lot happier but its now 1.30pm. sigh ..

My biggest problem at this stage is trying to keep everything clean.
With graphite pencils you do have to keep washing your hands and I try to remember  to work with paper under my hand.  Hazards are everywhere and cups of tea are usually balanced precariously next to me!

However it’s almost finished, perhaps I’ll add a couple more leaves at the bottom but it’s 5.30..enough for today or rather for the last 3 days!  I am glad I turned the flower head up, its more optimistic and less watchful on the part of the flower.

While she is turning her head to the sky the little bee can come and help herself to some more leaf curls. Hmm… that smacks a bit of whimsy doesn’t it,  a word I dislike intensely… blame it on hours of solitary confinement:

Little Miss Leafcutter off for some Leafcurls  🙂

leafcutter bee bg

Watercolour and graphite on Arches HP  approx 8 x 8 inches

The Leafcutter Bee: The Can Opener of the Bee World. Megachile sp.

If you happen to notice some beautifully cut, circular holes in your rose leaves you may well have some Megachile bees in your garden.

There will be no great damage to your plants and what some may find unsightly, I think is rather attractive.

Also, when you know that the female Megachile is just using the leaves to wrap her little ones in, you would hardly begrudge her a leaf or two, would you?

To help her this little bee is equipped with very strong chewing mandibles which she uses to bite through the leaves. It only takes one or two seconds for her to complete this operation.

Here is a sequence of photos by different photgraphers from the excellent photographic site Arkive: Images of Life on Earth, and the text is from “Bees of the World” by Christopher O’Toole and Anthony Raw.


“Just before the leaf fragment becomes completely detached the female vibrates her wings rapidly so she is already in flight as soon as the leaf is free.
She then flies a short distance and lands on the ground, a stone or a tree trunk while she adjusts her load. If the leaf fragment is longer than broad she uses her feet to fold it lengthways, so she straddles the leaf with its convex surface towards her. She flies back to the nest carrying the leaf in this way.”



There she makes beautifully crafted overlapping nest pockets, a kind of natural origami pot with which she lines her nest.

She sticks the leaf fragment together by crimping the edges of the leaves so that sap oozes out and this possibly with salivary glue acts as an adhesive.”


I am fascinated by the shape. These individual cells must fit into each other so the bee must know to taper them.
Here is a very nice description from an article by Louise Kulzer from the website;

Bugs of the Month” by Scarabs: The Bug Society, here

Actually, it’s a bit more elaborate than just lining the nest burrow. Leaf-cutter bees construct several cells from the leaf pieces they collect. The cells are positioned end to end in a long burrow.
Several circular leaf pieces form the bottom, then oblong pieces are placed along the sides to form a “thimble.” This thimble is then provisioned with nectar and pollen, and an egg is laid in it.

Then the bee cuts more circular pieces to close the cell. Once the cell is closed, the bee starts another cell above the first, until the whole cavity is filled. Like all solitary bees, the female leaves the nest after it is closed. The grubs fend for themselves on the nectar and pollen.

The adult leaf-cutter bee is smaller than a honey bee, dark, often hairy, with a prominent pollen basket below. Females are workaholics, and are a delight to watch because, being so intent on cutting leaves, they usually ignore a nearby observer!
The leaf sections are cut with the mandibles, and the bee forms an arc with her head along the leaf edge to make the circular shape. (They remind me a little of an electric can opener, only with much more personality.)

The facts
CLASS: Insecta
ORDER: Hymenoptera, Bees, wasps, ants and sawflies.
SUPERFAMILY: Apoidea. Bees and some wasps.
FAMILY: Megachilidae
GENUS: Megachile

The Megachilae are a huge genus of bee with well over 500 species. The most important North America species is the Alfalfa leafcutter bee Megachile rotundata which is used for alfalfa pollination.
A monster member of this family is Megachile pluto. A female can reach 1.5 inches long.


photo by Stavenn from Wikipedia here.

My bee is Megachile brevis a delightfully smart and perky little bee. The body shape is unusual in that there is a definite upward tilt rather than the more downward curved body shape of other bees.
These bees, like all of the female Megachile species carry dry pollen under their abdomen in the stiff bristly hairs called the “scopa” which in other bees is located on the legs.
I have Sam Droege and Anna to thank again for their help.

There was only one way I wanted to draw this bee. She had to show her stripes and pointed abdomen and the pollen basket, so a side view to show the tilted body shape too.

megachile sketch

A friend of mine described her yesterday as “very sassy”!


Bee number 15: The Leafcutter Bee, Megachile brevis

megachile leafcutter bee

Watercolour on Arches HP, Image size 3.5 inches.

Anna’s Anthidium: Bee No 12:The Wool Carder Bee

Over the last few weeks I have been writing to various people to get some help with my bee paintings.

I like to work from real models if possible and thought one way round this was to beg or borrow some spare bees from researchers. Anna from Anna’s Bee World who I have mentioned before and who helped me with the blue wasp identification has very kindly sent me a couple of samples, one of which was this beautiful Anthidium.

It is wonderful to have such good reference. Thank you Anna.

Seeing these striking black and yellow markings, you could be forgiven for thinking this bee was a wasp.
This is the Wool Carder Bee, Anthidium sp so called because they “card” the wooly covering from leaves to use as nest material.

The female has five sharp teeth on her mandibles with which she bites through the downy fibers. She then rolls them into a ball, tucks it under her body and carries it back to the nest .

3. -- rolls it into a neat ball

‘A female Anthidium manicatum commences cropping the woolly tomentum of a leaf ‘ from a series of photos by Neil Robinson BWARS here.

There is a very good article about Anthidium manicatum from here

These bees are members of the Megachile family whose females carry pollen on the underside of the abdomen in the scopa (stiff hairs). This is quite different from other bees who carry the pollen on their hind legs.
The male bees are territorial and armed with three spikes at the end of their abdomen.
They will use these to deter other insects while patrolling their patch and keeping a lookout for females. They nest in pre existing cavities, often in old plant stems, laying eggs in their downy nests and providing pollen balls for the hatched larvae.

I am always struck by the lack of affectionate writing about nature these days. Books and websites tend to be either simply factual or rather vague.
I generally try to find good writing from an earlier time where there is still that sense of wonder. It was nice to discover that the great writer and entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre shared my view!
He was criticised by his contemporaries for his gentle and colloquial style of writing.. here is his excellent reply:

“Others again have reproached me with my style, which has not the solemnity, nay, better, the dryness of the schools. They fear lest a page that is read without fatigue should not always be the expression of the truth. Were I to take their word for it, we are profound only on condition of being obscure.”

and here he writes about the Little Wool Carder Bee, which he calls the Cotton Bee:

We have but to see the nest of a Cotton-bee to convince ourselves that its builder cannot at the same time be an indefatigable navvy.
When newly-felted and not yet made sticky with honey, the wadded purse is by far the most elegant known specimen of entomological nest-building, especially where the cotton is of a brilliant white…
No bird’s-nest, however deserving of our admiration, can vie in fineness of flock, in gracefulness of form, in delicacy of felting with this wonderful bag, which our fingers, even with the aid of tools, could hardly imitate, for all their dexterity.
I abandon the attempt to understand how, with its little bales of cotton brought up one by one, the insect, no otherwise gifted than the kneaders of mud and the makers of leafy baskets, manages to felt what it has collected into a homogeneous whole and then to work the product into a thimble-shaped wallet.
Its tools as a master-fuller are its legs and its mandibles, which are just like those possessed by the mortar-kneaders and Leaf-cutters; and yet, despite this similarity of outfit, what a vast difference in the results obtained!

Fabre wanted to try to see how the bees manipulated the wool to make the nest and so replaced their reed homes with glass rods. It worked for some bees but not others:

For four years I supplied my hives with glass tubes and not once did the Cotton-weavers or the Leaf-cutters condescend to take up their quarters in the crystal palaces.
They always preferred the hovel provided by the reed. Shall I persuade them one day? I do not abandon all hope.

There is much much more of his delightful writing about the Wool Carder Bee here, part of the excellent website about Fabre complete with electronic texts:


There are many different species of Anthidium and they have beautiful distinctively different patterns. I have spent quite a long time looking at the patterns and feel I really need to paint them all.

I was asked how I worked on these paintings, so this is my set up for the Anthidium. I will record a close up step by step if I can remember.
I often intend to, for my own records, but normally get so engrossed that I just work from start to finish without stopping.

I have a little magnifying “third hand” which helps hold the bee in position and I used the back of an old picture frame as a small sloping board.
After the initial sketches to determine the position, (in this case I really wanted to show off the beautiful markings on the abdomen) I draw the image lightly on the paper and then with the bee next to me, a good light and a lot of patience, I work on the painting in stages.

I have 2 good W&N series 7 sable brushes sizes 0 and 00 and some cheaper synthetic ones for the initial washes. This painting took 5 hours once I had the image drawn on the paper. There are more details and more colours than show in the low resolution scan which tends to flatten the colours rather.. but it does give an idea.

sketches sm

desk 2      desk 3


Bee No 12: The Wool Carder Bee, Anthidium sp.

anthidium sp