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. 🙂

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 … 9×9

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…. 🙂

There Will Be Apples!.. (if you have an Orchard Bee). Osmia rufa again.

I knew I was going to repaint this one, so here is this serious little mason bee again.

I have to be completely frank .. she is not the most elegant of bees.

The female bees have rather large heads, which plus the accompanying horns give her a rather pugnacious appearance.
She will use the horns to shape the mud for her nest.
I have written about the Osmia Orchard bees both UK and USA before here, so I am not going to say much more and there is oodles of info on the internet.

Solitary Bee Blog
One delightful and fascinating blog is from Paul at Paul lives near Paris and charts his life with his solitary bees and his successes and failures in trying to increase their numbers. He talks about his concerns, his observations and conclusions with affection and humour.
He doesn’t have fancy bee nests, some are as simple as beer cans and rolled paper.
He is a diligent and resourceful carer. I particular liked his use of a black socks to keep out the light and prevent his cocoons from premature emergence (from an early post here).
There are some short films with French bird soundtracks and lots of info about the care of Osmia rufa and cornuta
I am quoting a piece from his intro which is interesting, not only because of his appreciation for and understanding of these lovely bees but for the curious attitude of the French.

“According to the experts, each bee can pollinate up to ten times more flowers than a honey bee but they are in no way aggressive to those in their midst. Over here in France, they are often misunderstood by people looking on; where my ‘colony’ of bees live, the locals here refer to them as lazy bees because they don’t produce honey (and thus appear to be of no exploitable value). For me however they are a source of inspiration. What they achieve in their focused short existence leaves the world in a much better shape – in 2007 our orchards were full of fruit.”

I hope you are getting your message across Paul.

The Painting I changed the painting, made her a little smaller and daintier, and, in tribute to their unsung work in the orchards, she is now flying up towards apple blossom. .. I think this will also be the title of the painting…


There Will Be Apples.

osmia 2sm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP approx 7 x 8”

The Red Mason bee, Osmia rufa, first studies.

I have started my next series, “20 British Bees” with this little bee,The Red Mason bee, Osmia rufa.

I painted a couple of heads a few days ago here. This is the one whose female of the species, along with O corniforns and O cornuta, has little horns on her face which she uses to mould the mud when making her nest cells.

These bees are really delightful and not as destructive as people think. They rarely make new holes in your walls but rather use existing holes. This is an orangey-red haired bee, and very similar to O cornuta but as far as I can make out, rufa’s last two abdominal segments are darker and rufa is the most common Osmia species in Britain.

These nice hardworking little bees will do for the British orchard what BOB Blue Orchard Bee Osmia lignaria will do for the USA’s fruit crops. If osmia lignaria is BOB then osmia rufa should really be ROB 🙂 Research has found that:

“One female Osmia rufa does the pollination work of between 120 and 160 honeybees. Another advantage is that even in orchards which already have honeybee hives, when these are augmented with mason bees, there is a demonstrable improvement in yield, fruit quality and shape. The same is true when Osmia is the sole or major pollinator. And importantly, mason bees are not susceptible to the Varroa mite. The Red Mason Bee is docile and safe with children and pets. No specialist training is required in their use and they are never a nuisance to neighbours. They are also fun to watch and, by providing them with nest sites, their conservation is encouraged.”quoted from Cropfosters from Chris O’Toole, Bee Systematics and Biology Unit, Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Just as there are commercially available nests for osmia bees in the USA there are also many companies in the UK who can supply nests, and I think cocoons. These bees will not be active for very long, just from April to June.

These photos below are from “Bees of the World” by Christopher O’Toole and Anthony Raw, where there is an excellent section on the Red Mason bee. The top photo shows some artificial homes, with mud seals put in place by the female when the nest is complete.

osmai gathering mud

In these bottom photographs rufa is collecting mud and carrying it home in her powerful jaws.

“She uses mud to partition and seal the cells Several nesting females may find the same area of mud and their activities can create a distinctive hollow or “quarry”. She uses the horns to tamp mud into position when closing a cell.”

So look out for quarrying bees come April! Like other members of the Megachile family she carries pollen, not on her legs, but in the scopa of stiff hairs under her abdomen, see also Anna’s Megachile “Leafcutter Bee” here.

Interestingly,the above author, Christopher O’Toole, retired from Oxford University and set up the Oxford Bee Company whose products include bee homes and books about the Red Mason bee.
These products are readily available in the UK, and, if designed and approved by him, should be good!

The Paintings

IF all goes according to plan, the “20 Bee Paintings” and some accompanying flower paintings will be on exhibition in June. Things are still not decided yet but it means I have to get a move on. I am still deciding on format and size for the series, so this is a trial piece. Some sketches and trials..

os rufa sketch sm os rufa sm

Colour study, plus I have given her a nice nest hole in a wall with a handsome moustachioed mate.

mason bee sm

And then I added some ivy as well, which I have just sketched in for now. I will paint a final version, once I have really decided on the layout size etc

. mason bee and ivy sm

This bee project will be three months of work.. I do hope you won’t be too bored! …but I do promise some flowers and other things as well!

The Curious Horn Faced Osmia Bees

While making some more notes on British bees, I was interested to read more about the funny little horned, female Osmia rufa.
The Osmia family in general are a really delightful bunch, not only hard working pollinators for your fruit trees but gentle too and ideal bees to keep in the garden.

I painted Osmia lignaria, the Blue Orchard bee for Deborah but that particular species is hornless.
The “horns” in question are two small protuberances which can be seen (if you get very up close and personal with the bee) just above the mandibles.

It seems they are used for shaping the mud which this clever little bee uses to build her nests, hence the common name “mason bee”.
The male O rufa on the other hand sports a fine white “moustache” and has longer more elegant antenna than the female.


I also remembered  that I had a specimen of Osmia cornifrons which Karen Strickler at Pollinator Paradise had kindly sent me along with O lignaria.

This bee also has the curious horns on the female’s face. It’s not a native USA bee but was introduced from Japan in 1977 to help with orchard pollination. With the help of a magnifying lens I was able to make this drawing of the female cornifrons’ head complete with horns.

Osmia cornifrons face


She is much hairier than her rufa relation. Then a couple of studies of the Osmia rufa… cute male head at the top and female at the bottom. .

Osmia rufa faces, male and female


rufa heads sm

The female also has huge jaws which she uses to collect mud for the nest and presumably to make the nests too. I don’t have time to write more today but will return to these nice little bees very soon with more info and more drawings….

BOB, The Gentle Blue Orchard Mason Bee : Osmia lignaria

The headline that first caught my eye when I started reading about these bees, says it all.. “This Bee Is Gentle” … A fact that is reiterated again and again, here is a quote from “The New Mexico Native Bee Pollinator Project” calling on gardeners in NM to help make “bee corridors”;

“Gardens for the more flamboyant hummingbirds and butterflies have become popular; now the bees need our support. There’s a fear factor with bees however, even among nature lovers.
Honey bees sting because they have a treasure trove to defend, and a queen who lays all of the eggs. Not so with native species: the vast majority of them are solitary bees who ARE VERY DOCILE and do not sting unless they are handled roughly.

When we become educated about our bees, a new understanding develops that they can be both safe and a delight to have around.”

This comes from the USA site Pollinator Paradise which has as much information about Blue Orchard Mason bees and other helpful native bees as you could ever wish for. It is run by Dr Karen Strickler who I have to thank for information, samples and pointing me in the right direction for my research on these bees.
Orchard bees have many champions and I have been amazed by how many suppliers are selling mason bee items, you can buy mason bee homes, which come in many different varieties from high rise blocks to bundles of straws; you can buy mason bee videos, mason bee online courses, and of course the bees themselves which come as little cocoons with full owners manuals.

Blue orchard bees overwinter as dormant adults so you can watch them emerge in the spring ready to start work, For a comprehensive listing of suppliers of everything, go to Pollinator Paradise here. You will be there for hours..!

So why all the fuss? Well this little bee is an ace pollinator of fruit crops and again, in face of the honey bee decline, the native bees are coming into their own.
If you have a small domestic orchard.. apples, cherries and other tree fruit just 50 blue orchard bees will help secure you a good crop.
(These bees are endearingly referred to as “BOBs” by the US Dept of Agriculture and there is a good article about them plus their possible predators here.)


BOB, on apple blossom from Karen Strickland at Pollinator Paradise

Minor mining

Although these are “solitary” bees, with each female making her own independent nest, they are gregarious and like to nest close to each other. They are opportunist nesters and will use old insect holes in wood, nail holes, and spaces in crumbling mortar.
They are not destructive as often thought as they do not burrow into mortar, but just make do!

Their name mason bee comes more from the fact that they seal their nests with mud.. so they make rather than destroy. They also like old hollow canes and can have as many twenty nest cells in one cane. J

ean-Henri Fabre, who I mentioned in the last post had hoped to find some Osmia nesting in the upright hollow reeds used by gardeners and farmers for fencing and supports…..from “Bramble Bees and Others” 1915:

I have often explored them in the hope of finding Osmia-nests. My search has very seldom succeeded. The failure is easily explained. The partitions and the closing-plug are made, as we have seen, of a sort of mud which water instantly reduces to pap.
With the upright position of the reeds, the stopper of the opening would receive the rain and would become diluted; the ceilings of the storeys would fall in and the family would perish by drowning.

Therefore the Osmia, who knew of these drawbacks before I did, refuses the reeds when they are placed perpendicularly.


Smart these bees..!

diagram nest

Drawing by Mike Kridle from Pollinator Paradise here


The Orderly Queuing of Bees.. with just a bit of nipping and shoving.

The tubular nests are fascinating and it seems that the size of the bee may depend somewhat on the size of the tube. The bee painstakingly makes each cell, bringing pollen and honey to each, lays her egg, seals the cell with mud, then moves on.
The lava will eat the provisions, spin a silk cocoon and stay in this safe house until the spring. In a way that is still not understood the lava knows which way to face before it spins the cocoon, facing backwards would be a disaster as there is only one way out.
I detected a problem here… if the first bee at the back of the nest develops first how does it get out when its younger siblings are still in their cocoons?

“Bees of the World” by Christopher O ‘Toole and Anthony Raw explains:

“Because of the linear arrangement of the cells ..the youngest bee emerges first, followed by the progressively older bees. However as may be expected the oldest bees in the deepest cells often awake from their winter dormancy first.

An older bee is thus likely to meet with a still dormant bee in the next cell between it and the nest entrance.The problem is solved as follows: when the bee has bitten through the partition into the rear of the next cell it bites its way through the cocoon of the bee in front.
If the occupant is inactive the bee nips the rear of its abdomen. This awakens the second bee which begins to vibrate its wings.. Nipping is repeated if necessary until the bee nearest the entrance starts to bite its way through the nest enclosure

This is an empty cocoon which Karen Strickler kindly sent me.
It is a beautiful translucent thing, light but very strong and fibrous.. just 1/2inch long


It occurs to me that Orchard bee cocoons complete with housing would make a wonderful Xmas gift for the keen gardener and nature loving child.. and me… (taps Chris on shoulder!)

If you in the UK there is lots of advice in the Nigel Jones’s excellent “Solitary Bees” pages here. (interestingly Nigel appears to be a cat)

Bee Friendly Gardens

Dr Strickler has some good advice for creating a bee friendly garden here.
Attracting these little bees is more about getting the right flowers at the right time, as they are most active between April and July.

Bob sketches

This is a pretty bee, and another challenge as she is a shiny blue/black but also quite a hairy little creature. This is the female. The smaller male has a rather fetching moustache and longer antennae. I am saving him for later.




Bee number 14: Osmia lignaria, the very dainty Blue Orchard Bee

osmia lignaria blue orchard mason bee

Watercolour on Arches 300 HP, image 3.5”