The Woolcarders have arrived!.

I am back to the blog after finishing a big commercial job which has re-kindled my first love, of pen and ink work.
It is the most wonderful medium and  I will be able to post more about the job when the website goes live.

Also this week I have had to swap the tiny brushes for house painting brushes to try to catch up with the last bits of decorating and make the Ugly Bungalow more like home.

In between, when a ray of sun struggles through the rain, I go out and see what is happening in Bee World, aka the Empty Garden. The rain has done us some favours, newly planted trees have been happy and general growth of everything, particularly the weeds has been.. well …exuberant.
And the garden is buzzing! Bees, hoverflies, and crane flies are everywhere.
It really goes to prove that if you plant the right flowers they will come.  And, joy of joys,  I have woolcarders!

The Wool Carder bee. Anthidium Manicatum

A day or two before I made the last post about the Mason bees I went out to look at the Lambs ears, Stachys byzantina in the garden and there to my complete amazement was a very handsome male woolcarder bee sitting on a leaf in a (fleeting) patch of sun. I had noted it down as 25th June.

Male Anthidium manicatum resting on Stachys leaf. You can clearly see the 3 fighting spines on his abdomen. He must seem to be a formidable opponent.

In the spring when I planted a tiny little new stachys plant, barely a couple of leaves, I had no expectation that woolcarders would come. In this new garden, nothing of much interest for bees would have been here last year, except the spring blossom of apples, cherries and hawthorn and we don’t have many well stocked gardens nearby.

I grew the stachys in the hopes that eventually these gorgeous bees might find me and here they are! So the questions are, where have they come from? Where were they last year? If there is no domesticated stachys available what would they use for there woolly nests?

In the occasional sunny spells I go out to watch them. The male is extremely entertaining and constantly patrols his patch of flower spikes. His life seems to be one of perpetual vigilance, for intruders into his airspace and for a visiting female.
He occasionally rests on a leaf but his current preferred lookout spot is the plastic cover of the pond pump. It gives him a good view of approaching enemies… or mates.

Resting on the plastic pump cover

He is always on guard, his life a heady round of nectar, sex and violence.
Along may come an unsuspecting bee or fly, innocently looking for food from the little purple stachys flowers and he is immediately up and into attack mode:…dart to vicinity of enemy, hover, assess threat and strike.
He is very fast.  The hover flies seem to be just an irritant which he chases away but the bumble bees seem to be his particular bête noir! I have watched him knocking poor unaware bumble bees from the flowers they are feeding on.

He will hover for some time before striking. His loud high pitched buzz is very distinctive and I am noticing similarities in sound, flight and general behaviour to the earlier hairy footed flower bees.
The woolcarder family seem to be relatively late risers and don’t much like the rain either. It was about 10.30 am today before I saw them and after even a light  shower they vanish..where do they go and I wonder where they spend the night.

( My bee friend and helper Alan Phillips told me that last year his male anthidium spent the nights sheltering in the toilet overflow pipe!)

Bees certainly do seem to emerge at different times of the day, the bumble bees, I know are out at first light and fly till dark. As for female nest building, I have yet to see any signs of them“carding” hairs from the leaves. Here are some intruders who make the most of his temporary absences.

An unwary bumble bee.

A little solitary bee who was given just a gentle nudge.


A glittering green fly.


A bee mimic who was chased away


as was this little hoverfly.

Here is another photo of the male taken this morning, showing his handsome white haired legs and yellow mandibles. They don’t seem to worry about me or the camera. I guess we are just too big.

This is, I think, the female.. they don’t stop  for long, which is wise really!.. so they are hard to photograph.
They are considerably smaller than the males with slightly different facial markings and slightly different spots on their abdomens.

For more information I have turned to my bee bible, the very excellent “Bees of Surrey” by David Baldock  and I am fascinated to learn that Gilbert White of Selborne in 1773 was asking the very same questions. His Journal entry for August reads;

“Apis manicata. This bee is never observed by me ‘till the Stachys germanica blows, on which it feeds all day: tho’ doubtless it had other plants to feed on before I introduced that Stachys

David goes on to write;

“the females forage almost entirely on labiates including selfheal, betony, black horehound,hedge woundwort and garden catmint”

My woolcarders also feed on the nearby labiates, including the big ugly motherwort and the salvias, but they especially love the very beautiful meadow clary, salvia pratensis, whose flowers are deep purple blue and which has grown quite well on this heavy clay soil. I hope it survives the winter.


Meadow Clary


I do have some selfheal, but have not seen it busy with bees yet, my betony is struggling to flower and my catmint has been decimated by the neighbours cats.. despite being surrounded by a twiggy fortress and a sonic cat scarer.. The things we do for the bees!!

It’s raining now and bee watching is over for the day. I wonder how long these lovely bees will be around and if they will perhaps make use of my bee house in some way?
Over the months watching the bees and seeing their very special relationships with plants has posed many questions. Every day there are more questions.
Some will be in the next post.
Now I am back to prettying up the Ugly Bungalow….. sigh…” lipstick on a pig” comes to mind, which has always seemed a bit unkind to pretty pigs.

Wool Carder Painting step by step….almost there.

I am back to commissions and some commercial work this week but hope to have a little more time for just sketching and drawing.
When teaching my workshops I am a bit of a nag about drawing and practise, everyday if possible, so I really must practise what I preach!!

But it’s back to completing the Wool Carder Bee first. I almost finished it for the Meadow Days show and was able to have it on display and chat about the process of drawing and painting a bee. Here are a few stages of the work:

Referring back to my preliminary sketches I lightly draw the bee on the frighteningly clean and pristine paper. This always makes me very nervous.
Thank goodness it is tough stuff because I still do quite a bit of re-drawing and adjusting on the paper.
i.e. was not quite sure where I wanted that front leg…..


Leg adjusted, I put in first colour guides.


Stages 3 and 4 are just building up colour depth and getting the eye right. It’s important to me that I have the eye done fairly soon. “Eye contact” with your painting helps make a bond between you and your work!! It’s a bit of a responsibility creating something!!

and by this stage I have erased up some of the pencil lines!

Stages 5 is more building up and I use quite a bit of lifting out and add white gouache to paint the lovely long silky hairs that this bee has on the underside of her thorax.

stage 5 bg

The almost last stage is the wings, sorting out the detail of the abdomen markings and the antennae.. when I pray for a steady hand!
There is nowhere to hide mistakes made here!

stage 6 bg

I then leave the bee and get on with the background. I will go back to do further adjustments later on if I see any glaring mistakes. It’s good to leave things alone for a while!
The pencil work takes a long LONG time as, again, I do draw and redraw on the paper and it is forgiving, but only up to a point.
Some times I rough out the leaves and flowers on tracing paper and position them here and there to check the composition.
I didn’t take stage images as that would be very boring..

stage 7 bg

Its almost finished now. Just a few adjustments to do and I need to add a small image of Wallsworth Hall, home of Nature in Art gallery. I have sketched it roughly on tracing paper to position it….It might go about here!

stage 8 bg      image

I will be finishing it this week…unless, perchance, we have SUN??? Hope springs eternal …….

Wool Carder Sketches 2

The next stage of the wool carder is getting the pose worked out a little more. I know what I want to achieve. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Sometimes things change quite a bit when I start to paint

woolcarder 2

I am looking at my little model and noticing things like the quite short tarsus, the darkish wings and the slight haze of short ginger hairs on the thorax and the silky longer hairs under the thorax, on the legs and the stiff pollen collecting hairs under the abdomen, the scopa.

I watched them last year both at Heligan and at Twigworth.
I do hope my newly planted Lambs Ears and Motherwort  (…the happiest thing in my garden !) will coax some of these lovely bees here. It is quite noticeable that the female carries her head lower than the male. Bees have a limited possible head movement because of the broadness of the rigid exoskeleton where the head and thorax meet.

The head shape and size relative to the body can vary quite a bit between species. Some remind me a bit of the old fashioned nodding dog models :).  A nodding bee might be rather nice to have on the back shelf of the car.

woolcarder 1

Colour note sketch. Sketchbook, watercolour and pencil

Wool Carder Sketches

I am painting a female Anthidium manicatum, the gorgeous Wool Carder Bee for Simon at Nature in Art.

I chose this one in particular because Wallsworth Hall is where I first watched this wonderful little bee stripping the hairs from the furry leaves of Lambs Ears or Stachys byzantina to use for nest building.
She is also extremely pretty!
The males and females are very similar looking except that the males are, unusually for the bee world, much bigger.. also they move in a different way.  The male has an aggressive darting flight and will patrol a patch of flowers, ferociously seeing off any bee or insect intruders, head butting and attacking a perceived competitor with the awesome three spines he has at the base of his abdomen.
She on the other hand is a calmer more purposeful little bee intent on gathering fibres and foraging from the flowers of Stachys, and other similar labiates.

Both male and female have various yellow marking on their face, legs and abdomen making them easy to mistake for a wasp at a casual glance.

Notes and Sketches

Firstly, I have to get the female’s markings and characteristics correct so I start with a few notes. Where are the yellow spots? How are they different from the males, especially on the face. I notice that the lower part of the legs of the females seem  very slightly thicker and hairier too. They have quite a rounded body shape and pale silky hairs on their legs.

sketches 1

I have not seen very many Anthidium manicatum here in the UK and the only ones I have seen have a line of yellow spots on the sides of their abdomen.
Other Anthidium species have much bolder yellow banded markings. ( I keep thinking they would make a very attractive set of pattern designs! … but not right now as I am too busy.)

Next the design. Even though they do use other plants for both food and nest material I will include the Stachys. It grows in a beautiful big patch on the front border of the Museum at Wallsworth Hall and is obviously much loved by the wool carders. Regular readers will know that I take ages to decide on poses and plants.
This time the plant is chosen and it’s only the pose I have to consider.
For me its about trying to express something of the character of the bee and how it relates to the plant. But it also has to be a good composition and hopefully an engaging painting.

First scribbles are really important for me to work out how I am going to try to achieve all this!  The designer in me likes the simple central stem with the view of the bee from the top.
This would show the markings on the back quite well… but very little of the character of the bee. It would be more like a technical  drawing.

Sketches 2

To show the bee actually carding the hairs from the leaf might be interesting but they very often curl right over while accumulating the big ball of fluff under their abdomen and that’s not a particularly good pose for a painting or to show off their beautiful markings.

I think I will probably go for the design bottom right.. a front/side view looking over the edge of a furry leaf.
I planted a Stachys in the garden here. It’s struggling through, but at last with the arrival of some sun its beginning to grow, so I made a quick sketch.

stachys in garden bg

At this stage it’s all about “looking”, rather than “drawing”.
These rough sketches are visual thoughts, just for me, to try to work things out.
But to draw something, however roughly, is to understand it a little more than you did before!

“BUZZ” at “Nature in Art” and Wool Carders carding!

I was at Nature in Art near Gloucester all of last week and the weekend as Artist in Residence.

It’s a fascinating place. A lovely old manor house dedicated to the celebration of all things natural in painting, sculpture and ceramics, a good cafe and wild grounds.

Wonderful for wildlife. Michael Porter’s current exhibition “The Glance and the Gaze” is inspiring!

Artists in Residence have a studio to work in although I have been too busy talking to visitors to actually do much but I had my paintings and sketchbooks to show and talk about.
My good intentions to blog were thwarted by no internet access!

My paintings and sketchbooks and bees at the studio.

In between talking to the visitors I went out for a bit of bee spotting.
There is quite an extensive wild flower area with red clover, thistles and scabious which is full of bees and hoverflies. At the front of the building are some immensely tall, beautiful hollyhocks, which were busy with bumble bees and in the same border, a patch of furry stachys where to my delight a pair of the gorgeous woolcarder bees are indulging in some perfectly textbook behaviour.

Now please understand that this is the first time I have actually seen, with my own eyes, a wool carder bee carding. I was really quite thrilled to see  the little female come back time after time to chew the fibres from the undersides of the leaves. She curls round as she gathers them up then flies back to her nest with her ball of fluff, to use for nest building.

wool carder carding

The photo above shows the de-fluffed underneath of the leaf, and the bee busy trimming off the fibres. Nature in Art 2nd August. Photo Val Littlewood

I have never seen a nest but here from Wisconsin,  USA is a photo from the excellent Bugguide  by Ilona who found an Anthidium nest behind her  mailbox.
There are two photos of the fluffy white nest, it is quite extensive, a lot of work for this little bee.

woolcarder nest Ilona L

Female anthidium July 2010 by Ilona Loser:  Bugguide

The male meanwhile was, in turn, resting and patrolling….. resting and patrolling. He was constantly checking his territory, flying backwards and forwards between the catmint, just a yard away, where he was feeding, and the stachys leaves where he sits in the sun. He sat with his wings folded for a while before spreading them out at his sides in a very characteristic anthidium pose.

anthidium male bg

These big beautiful furry males are able to hover and dart very quickly. It’s a very distinctive flight pattern and you can see him tirelessly chase away intruding bees and hoverflies.
They seems to be a source of constant irritation to him.  I watched him suddenly zoom over and knock a trespassing bumble bee to the ground. After a tussle the bumble bee flew off apparently unharmed. It was all too quick to see if the woolcarder employed those fearsome spikes he is armed with.

A couple of days later after some heavy rain  I found the two bedraggled bees sitting disconsolately on neighbouring flower spikes. They were still, cold and fed up, just waiting for some sun.

resting anthidium
Wet  anthidium male.

It is making me wonder if the anthidium make pairs, I have only seen these two on this patch.
After warming up the male flew off but the female took a little more time, she buzzed her wings occasionally and when offered my hand she happily climbed aboard for a few minutes, warming up and spreading out her wings to dry.

I was with one of the visitors who was delighted to see her and as I held her up we could see her large jaws. Her tiny clawed toes were quite clingy, I have found that a cold wet bee is often quite reluctant to leave the warmth of your hand. It’s been a wonderful week with many lovely bee friendly people, and some new converts.

Amongst the visitors were the wonderful Bee Guardians from Gloucester.. more of them tomorrow! So thanks to Simon and all the staff. I am looking forward to returning next year.

Bees Deliver the Buzz at Heligan!

The bees and I are back home now after a brilliant two weeks at the beautiful Lost Gardens of Heligan.
There are so many people to say “thank you” to, the staff, the visitors and of course the Gardens’ bees who performed beautifully, and unfailingly, every day for the 2.00 pm Bee Walk.

We would start the walk staring optimistically at a small hole in the ground in a nearby flowerbed.


The tension was palpable.. would there be any bees today???

But the wonderful little Red Tailed Bumble Bee workers never failed me and flew in and out of their underground nest on cue. The tiny mining bees endearingly popped in and out of their holes in the Melon Yard and sometimes rested obligingly on the nearby stones.

bee head

mining bees sunning

Garden Bumble Bees, Common Carder Bees, Buff Tailed Bumble Bees and White Tailed Bumble Bees were all over the foxgloves, woundwort, poppies, brambles and odd things like dianthus and geums.

Bumble bees were climbing into the huge snapdragons, the big flowers swallowing up the bees almost entirely. They were all engaging and delightful…

carder bee on motherwort

Common Carder Bees seemed to particularly like Motherwort Leonurus cardiaca.


I watched fascinated as a big bumblebee gathered together groups of poppy stamens and “buzzed” them to release the pollen.

tiny bee on poppy

Whereas this little bee could only jump on one stamen and sway up and down. Very comical


Early one morning I found a little Bombus worker nectar robbing the pineapple sage flower.

I was able to show the holes at the base of the flowers to, sometimes, disbelieving visitors. Amongst the star performers were the very beautiful Anthidium manicatum bees, the Wool Carder Bee.  Males were patrolling a patch of woundwort and fighting in a quite spectacular way while the females just got on with their lives.

anthid male 3

This male at last took a break, the spikes on the end of his abdomen are quite awesome. He has cream hairs on his legs and the hairs on his  body give him a halo  of creamy white. A closer look shows the yellow spots and markings on the abdomen which vary from species to species and between male and female.

The smaller female with her head in a flower. I was wondering where the females were getting the fibers for their nests but the Latin name for woundwort is Stachys sylvatica (Hedge Woundwort) which must be a relative of their favourite plant which we commonly know as Lambs Ears Stachys byzantina The woundwort leaves have more bristly hairs but are certainly hairy enough I guess.


I said, saw, did and learnt so much in my two weeks there. My bee tent was never empty, even on bad days.

Hundreds of people passed through. We had garden experts, bee keepers, entomologists and general bee, insect and wildlife enthusiasts. There were novice gardeners, old hands, people who wanted just to share bee stories, bee sightings, nest discoveries and  flower or habitat suggestions.
I know I have convinced quite a few bee anxious people that our wild bees are harmless and charming. Stroking a ( I hasten to add, deceased) bee as usual proved popular.
We rescued grounded cold wet bees from the paths, which would sit happily on my warm hand to be admired by visitors.  We kept running out of bee and flower leaflets and again I sold out of books and the postcards.
My benign directive from Lorna the marketing manager was to inspire and inform and I know the show and the accommodating bees did just that.
The many comments in the visitors book said it all. It’s not really in my nature to post these sort of comments but maybe it’s time I did! Here are just a few.
From Cath and Maureen :

“Feel v lucky to be @Heligan at the same time as this exhibition, both educational and lovely to look at. Bought the book!

And from Monique:

“Exquisite and useful Bonne continue!”

And from Lisa:

“Fabulous, so good to have a knowledgeable and passionate person here. I  will be more attentive now. We must look after our bees! Thankyou!”

Vana and Peter came on the bee walk :“Really interesting show and walk , very helpful” they said, and later in the day rushed back with concern about the fate of some little ground nesting bees…
Be assured, the stones which will cover them will allow for gaps!!
Most overheard comment… “Oh I didnt know there were so many bees”

But…the biggest bee of the trip has to be at Eden… I took a morning off to go and see this inspiring place!

eden bee

The Wool Carder Bee and a little from Gilbert White.

I was trying to adopt a “less is more” approach for this post as I had written about the Anthidium, or Wool Carder bees when I painted Anna’s Bee back in December and included some of Fabre’s lovely writing about what he called “The Cotton Bee”.

But there is so much to know about these really attractive rather wasp-like little bees. So, I can do no better really than to send you over to biologist Blackbirds’s excellent Bug Blog, to read the posts tagged with Anthidium manicatum here.

There are 4 excellent posts with some wonderful photographs and observations of behaviour and links. Here are just two photos: the male with his lovely yellow face and the shy little female.

Male feeding     female A manicatum

Photos by Blackbird from Bug Blog.

This is a short quote from the post entitled “ Wool Carder Bee Watching 2: the Female

“The first time I came across Anthidium manicatum, the Wool-Carder Bee was after hearing it, not the usual humming noise bees make when flying, but that produced by a female’s jaws cutting the hairs of a plant I had recently planted in the garden, Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina). Since then, this has been a plant that has not been missing from the garden, just because it is a sure way of attracting Wool-Carder bees.”

If you are interested in these bees and others there are many other wonderful posts in the blog. The Anthidium family have many fascinating variations on the black and yellow patterning.  There is a very good page showing different types on the French “World of Insects” site, compiled by Alain Ramel here.

Gilbert White and Selborne

It’s inevitable that we who like bees will find the same references from the great Natural History writers or a nicer way of putting perhaps the ‘natural philosophers’.
Blackbird has also included Fabre in the anthidium posts and this passage from Gilbert White’s summer observation from “The Natural History of Selborne” which, on a gloomy cold rainy day here made me smile!  His entry is from July 11th 1772.

“Drought has continued five weeks this day.  Watered the rasp and annuals well. There is a sort of wild bee frequenting the garden-campion for the sake of its tomentum, which probably it turns to some purpose in the business of nidification.  It is very pleasant to see with what address it strips off the pubes, running from the top to the bottom of a branch, & shaving it bare with all the dexterity of a hoop-shaver. When it has got a vast bundle, almost as large as itself, it flies away, holding it secure between its chin and its forelegs.”

But I came across this passage from a different  source .. from the lovely annotated site “The Natural History of Selborne,  Journals of Gilbert White” compiled by animator Sydney Padua. You can read entries by month and date which show Gilbert White’s simple observations from different years, here are 2 entries for tomorrow, the last day of February.

  • “1769: February 28, 1769 – Raven sits.
  • 1768: February 28, 1768 – Wet continues still: has lasted three weeks this day. Pinched off the tops of the cucumber plants, which have several joins.”

Reading back over passages from this wonderful book, which our family, as many others, has never been without, I had forgotten..( how could I!) about Timothy the Tortoise, and had a flash of memory about our much loved childhood tortoises.
The site is full of links to Gilbert White, the Journals, Selborne  etc. and one of my favourite quotes is .. in response to people writing to her and asking if their version of the book is valuable (there are thousands)..

“The best reply was my husband’s, to an email that read in its entirety, “I have a copy of “The Natural History of Selborne is it worth anything” — “If you read it, yes.”

Sydney, by the way is one of those excellent animators I was talking about yesterday whose drawing skills are so very good. See her animation site and wonderful sketches here.

The Painting

I had a small dilemma. I want to paint the male bee as his markings are slightly more showy and wanted to show that rather intimidating spiked tail,  but I also wanted to include the wooly plant Stachys byzantina (Lambs Ears) which the bees use to make their nests.

This could be thought of as misleading because it is the female who makes the nests but I was encouraged to read that the males also feed on Stachys flowers, and, of course, hang around the plant too in search of a mate.
I initially thought about including a bigger leaf with a tiny drawing of the female carding.. but common sense prevailed. I was able to use Anna’s specimen again too, but had a slight accident and lost half of it on the floor..after an hour searching with a torch I did retrieve it. Half a bee is not easy to find on a patterned carpet.

But anyway, here is the male heading hopefully  over to the Lamb’s Ears!

anthidium sketch sm woolcarder sketch small


The Wool Carder bee, Anthidium manicatum and Wooly Lamb’s Ear Stachys byzantina

woolcarder bee sm

Watercolour and pencil on Arches HP. 7’” square approx.