Our Little Blue Eyed Bee, Osmia spinulosa

Last week I had another very good trip with Trevor to the local wildlife site where I had seen the fascinating Snail Shell Bee back in May.
See my blog post  Of Snail Shell bees and where the Wild Bees live.

The site is about twenty minutes by car from my house and the land is much chalkier. This may account for the huge number of snails and the consequent presence of the snailshell bee, Osmia bicolour. .. and, to my delight, another bee who uses snail shells for nests, the charming and blue eyed Osmia spinulosa.

We saw quite a few as we walked along and then were lucky to find a female fast asleep in the centre of a flower. She was completely oblivious to both us and our cameras and stayed like this for a good five minutes, only flying away after a beam of sun broke through the clouds and warmed up her flower.  From a casual glance you would easily mistake her for another species of bee.

There are quite a few which have a similar orange haired scopa…but the eyes are the clue, the beautiful and unusual blue eyes which exhibit the strange Moiré pattern of the facetted compound eyes of bees.

We did not spot any of the shell homes, with the very lush vegetation at the moment it would be hard to find them as they are hidden away at the best of times. These little bees are more common in the south and you may find them on flowers of the daisy family in areas of undisturbed, rough tussocky grass.

Before posting this I checked the ID with my bee mentor Alan Phillips who also double checked with bee expert George Else so I am pretty confident about this one. There wasn’t very much sun but enough to liven up the bees and encourage some butterflies.
Meadow Browns were everywhere, we saw dainty skippers and this pretty Marbled White which stopped to feed on the knapweed.

And lastly, almost invisible and resting on a fence post, a huge Privet Hawk Moth, our largest moth. On the wing it has an almost 5 inch wingspan.

What beautiful things they are with their silken wings and soft, pinky, brown-grey colours. (very, very paintable!)

Thanks again to Trevor for another illuminating walk. It is always a pleasure to walk with someone who is both knowledgeable and appreciative.
Next time I am hoping to see the tiny harebell bee..if it ever stops raining!

Snail Shell Bees: Days 4 and 5. Finishing stages and a word about my paints.

The last stages of a painting can be the most nerve racking and the most rewarding.
Will I overwork it? Will I drop paint, tea or coffee on it. Will it look anything at all as I had hoped?

I had decided right at the start to add some colour to the main snail shell and the pine needles.
I wanted a little more colour in this painting to help unite everything,  but without cluttering the image with too much detail.

Unfortunately I did forget to take step by step photos of this stage. ( just when my friend John had congratulated me on remembering!!). When I work, I put the radio on and listen to plays, discussions, poetry, book reviews and news etc etc and tend to get engrossed in both the work and what I am listening to and forget to get the camera out.


It took me two more days to finish the painting.
I worked over many areas of the pencil  to iron out any wobbles and keep the tones balanced. I painted the shell lightly, worked on the twigs and leaves and added the little boat sailing by the Needles.



Then strengthened the shell colour again and some more of the pencil work.


Here it is about finished. It all looks rather too dark and contrasty  compared with the original, in reality it is softer, but this gives you an idea. Pencil work is very hard to either photograph or scan.

final bg

The Snail Shell Bees, Osmia bicocolour and the Needles.
Watercolour and Pencil on Fabriano Artistico HP. 12.5 inches x 14.5 inches

Was I pleased?… Yes, thankfully,I was. It’s no fun to work on something for a week and then hate it!
But, believe me, sometimes it does happen.
But I have become very involved with these two bees and their little world and will be sad to see them go. I always put a piece away for a few days before sending it off to its new home.
Niggles will disappear and glaring errors may become more apparent but there does come a point at which you have to stop! As I write this the painting is in the post!

Seeing the Snail Shell Bees in real life

I would so like to see these wonderful little bees in real life. I have of course watched the wonderful films on the Internet which I spoke about in my previous posts.
I know they are not common or perhaps are under recorded but to my delight I recently found a couple of reports of sightings not too far away from here.
One further north near Peterborough from April this year on Mollyblobs blog here  and another one in Bedfordshire by Keith Balmer on Bedfords Fauna and Flora Blog here with a wonderful photo of the female bee flying with a twig.

Thanks to you both for posting about them. This gives me hope and next year I may be lucky!


A quick word about my Graham Paints.

I am about to write a small piece about my bee paintings for the good people at Graham Paints in America. I started using their gorgeous rich and creamy watercolours when I was in the USA.  I painted my first set of bees for Deborah with them and  all my “Buzz” bees for the exhibition.

graham paints

Not only are they rich but they have a slight sheen to them when they are applied thickly. I do use quite thick paint and like to push it around quite a bit even on a small scale and I like the sheen. About half way through Deborah’s commission I was reading a bit more about them and discovered this:….
from M Graham’s Website:

“Our watercolor is created with exceptional amounts of pigment in a time honored binding medium of pure gum arabic and natural blackberry honey
Why Honey?
As an essential ingredient in our binding medium, honey contributes to moistness for smooth, easily controlled applications, increased pigment concentrations and freedom from reliance on preservatives. Because of the honey medium, our color resists hardening on the palette, or in the tube. It dilutes easily, often after months of disuse.!

… and it’s all true. It seems a poetic coincidence that I am painting bees with blackberry honey paints! …  🙂 They are wonderful paints… more on this in a separate post.

Snail Shell Bees: Step 1

I have nearly finished this painting and it has been fascinating to work on.

Although I had roughed it out I wasn’t really sure how it would turn out at all and I had been quite anxious about starting it. But as it developed, it took on a life of its own and that’s just how I like it.

The atmosphere and the “feel”of a piece is much more important to me than technical perfection, which is why I could never be a scientific illustrator. I sometimes think it must be like writing a novel or perhaps a short story. You become drawn in this other world that you are creating, sometimes more involved in this imaginary world, rather than in the one you are really living in.

My two bees became characters with a purpose and I have drawn them as well as I could. The bees this time are Osmia bicolour bees, both male and female. Today the male who will be sitting on a snail shell.

The first steps, ideas and roughs and research.

Some people ask me how long I need to do a painting and I guess I need at least a week of thinking and research time before I do anything. I really need to get to know my subject, understand how it lives, where it lives and a bit about its character.

This is sometimes  the slowest and most agonising part of the work,  because all you have is a piece of white paper and you have to start make all the decisions.
It could be anything, any size, any colour, any composition but you have to bring something to life, create something from the  simple 2 dimensions of that  piece of white paper.
You have to work a bit of magic. I sit and doodle I read and I make little thumbnails until I get something which seems to work. That’s what  I usually send to a client and I have to tell them  that the sketch is just a guide, because things will change and more importantly need to be able to change. It has to be my decision.
I would now rather make a painting that pleases me and have it rejected by a client than make something I am not happy with to please someone else.
So to recap, this was the thumbnail I sent to Carol and Peter.
The two Osmia bees, she is carrying a twig of some kind to cover her shell nest with. The male  hanging about .. as male bees tend to, waiting for a mate.


This thumbnail was very small about A6 I guess, and done some time ago.

Looking at it again I re-draw and re-think it a bit. I am going to include something personal for Carol and Peter, just as I did for the B hypnorum commission.

It’s more meaningful for them and is an interesting addition to the painting. It’s bigger than any of my other bee paintings and it has two bees this time.
The image area is 12.5 x 14 .5 inches approx painted on a bigger size 19 x 22 inch size sheet of Fabriano Artistico HP 300.
It was originally going to be slightly larger still, but there is a “comfortable” size for these bees and I had to reduce it a bit. It depends what your aim is of course, but large bees can sometimes look a little unnerving!

bees bg

This is now sketched out at the size I want to paint. I have changed the position of the male as I want him to look more at us.
The gaze and the engagement with the viewer is important. I have always felt that to walk out in the countryside is to be observed by many tiny creatures. I like that feeling and I am happy to slide away from strict scientific constraints to create an image I want. After all, this is my painting.

Starting to paint

My current set up is not ideal. We live in two rooms in total, a big bedsit I guess, so everything is rather cramped  and the light is not good. But I have a lamp and a laptop stand to angle the board. It has to do for now and could be worse!

drawn out

I am always nervous about the first layers of colour, worried about keeping the surface clean and worried that I will not be able to give the bee character and life.
But I need to get some colour down quickly, to get rid of some of the accusatory white paper!

two sm    Three sm

I have put some pieces of paper round the image to try to keep the Fabriano clean.
I am not really a precise worker and do push the paint around quite a bit…splashes are frequent :).
I guess it is a bit of a cliché but I need to paint the eyes early on. I have to establish a rapport!

four sm

I build up with brush strokes that follow the shape of the hair or whatever it is I am painting. It seems to help to give it an underlying structure, even if it is obliterated later on.

five sm

I am jumping a couple of steps for fear this should be like “watching paint dry” .. on with the wings. I don’t put too much detail in.

eight sm

and then a tidy up. It’s mostly watercolour with some white gouache for the fine hairs. The hair on a bee has different qualities on different parts of its body. Slightly silkier under the thorax and slightly bristlier on the top.

ten sm

This is the end of day one. So far so clean!

Wonderful, Inspirational Fabre, again…

I have been doing some more general bee reading today, mostly about the fascinating little bees that use snail shells for their nests. I always like to read Fabre and I have mentioned him in the blog before.  If you had ever thought that wild bees might be boring or uninteresting…(how could you??)  just read the passage below.

I know it is a translation but it is still such lovely writing.
From the introduction to Jean Henri Fabre’s  Book of Insects, retold from Alexander Teixeira de Mattos’ translation of Fabre’s “Souvenirs Entomologiques,” 1921.
Fabre is describing his delight in getting a small piece of land where he can observe his insects uninterrupted…

“For forty years it was my dream to own a little bit of land, fenced in for the sake of privacy: ….And then, at last, my wish was fulfilled. I obtained a bit of land in the solitude of a little village. It was a harmas which is the name we give in this part of Provence to an untilled, pebbly expanse where hardly any plant but thyme can grow. It is too poor to be worth the trouble of ploughing, but the sheep pass there in spring, when it has chanced to rain and a little grass grows up.

My own particular harmas, however, had a small quantity of red earth mixed with the stones, and had been roughly cultivated. I was told that vines once grew here, and I was sorry, for the original vegetation had been driven out by the three-pronged fork. There was no thyme left, nor lavender, nor a single clump of the dwarf oak. As thyme and lavender might be useful to me as a hunting-ground for Bees and Wasps, I was obliged to plant them again. There were plenty of weeds : couch-grass, and prickly centauries, and the fierce Spanish oyster-plant, with its preading orange flowers and spikes strong as nails.

Above it towered the Illyrian cotton-thistle, whose straight and solitary stalk grows sometimes to the height of six feet and ends in large pink tufts. There were smaller thistles too, so well armed that the plant- collector can hardly tell where to grasp them, and spiky knap- weeds, and in among them, in long lines provided with hooks, the shoots of the blue dewberry creeping along the ground. If you had visited this prickly thicket with- out wearing high boots, you would have paid dearly for your rashness! See here is a Tailor-bee. She scrapes the cobwebby stalk of the yellow-flowered centaury, and gathers a ball of wadding which she carries off proudly with her mandibles or jaws. She will turn it, underground, into cotton satchels to hold the store of honey and the eggs.

And here are the Leaf-cutting Bees, carrying their black, white, or blood-red reaping brushes under their bodies. They will visit the neighbouring shrubs, and there cut from the leaves oval pieces in which to wrap their harvest. Here too are the black, velvet-clad Mason-bees, who work with cement and gravel. We could easily find specimens of their masonry on the stones in the harmas. Next comes a kind of Wild Bee who stacks her cells in the winding staircase of an empty snail-shell; and another who lodges her grubs in the pith of a dry bramble-stalk; and a third who uses the channel of a cut reed; and a fourth who lives rent-free in the vacant galleries of some Mason-bee. There are also Bees with horns, and Bees with brushes on their hind-legs, to be used for reaping.

On my doorway lives the White-banded Sphex: when I go indoors I must be careful not to tread upon her as she carries on her work of mining. Just within a closed window a kind of Mason-wasp has made her earth-built nest upon the freestone wall. To enter her home she uses a little hole left by accident in the shutters. On the mouldings of the Venetian blinds a few stray Mason- bees build their cells. The Common Wasp and the Solitary Wasp visit me at dinner. The object of their visit, apparently, is to see if my grapes are ripe. Such are my companions. My dear beasts, my friends of former days and other more recent acquaintances, are all here, hunting, and building, and feeding their families.”


A wonderful and affectionate introduction to our wild bees. I, too, am hopefully on the brink of getting a small garden which sounds very much like Fabre’s… not overgrown as such but with nothing much there.

I will hope to create as good a bee haven as his and I did notice a small vine growing on the fence, so I will also be looking forward to having the company of wasps at dinner.

Snails shell bees roughs I worked on the sketches a bit more today. They are Osmia bicolour male and female..

osmia bicol male sm     osmia bicolour female s

. snailshell bees

More about them in the next post.. I am just off to read a bit more of Fabre’s writing. You can find a great page which has links to his books on line here.
This book site has been complied by John Mark Ockerbloom, digital library planner and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, who deserves a medal. We are so lucky to have resources like this!