I don't know when it began, but I have a fascination with bees.
That's what this week's column is about. In addition to the current concerns about declining bee populations, there's a lot to consider when we talk about bees.
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Their value to food production in the U.S. alone is worth over $14 billion annually. Human-related pollination aside, bees of all stripes pollinate a staggering proportion of the wild and domestic plants that fill our forests, prairies, and back yards.
And, although I didn't bump into any hard numbers while preparing for this week's article, it's probably safe to estimate that bees form a fundamental link in the food chain wherever they are. Quite likely all sorts of birds, amphibians, and other creatures eat them, their pollen-rich hives, and even their larvae.
All that to say that the bees we see buzzing about deserve a second glance, not a whack with a fly-swatter.
So, how do we get a closer look?
Try looking for a place with lots of flowers - when you see the flowers vibrating with small bees, or bobbing with the weight of a bumble bee, settle in nearby.
Taking photos of bees can be rewarding or frustrating, and sketching would be the same if it weren't for the fact that you can adapt your sketches as you go.
For example, in the sketch above, I was trying to capture a head-on view of a very swift bee as it zigged about on a leek flower head. I had to get within a few inches of the flower, and keep a close eye out for bees looking my way. That necessitated a quick, scribble-like style and some notes about color dashed down on the margin of the page.
In contrast, the following sketch was made under more leisurely conditions.
I sketched this honey bee by patiently watching the same flower for 10+ minutes. Each time the bee returned, I would study it carefully, and add a bit more to the sketch. Even if it wasn't the exact same bee, it was another from its hive, which meant I could keep right on drawing the "same" one.
In both cases, I have observed the bees closely enough, and made sufficient notes, that I could likely identify them with some confidence.
To identify what you see, you would need a field guide to bees.
Although there aren't as many guides as there could be, there are a few. You may find the following useful on your next bee sketching expedition:
- For an enjoyable read based on sound science, bee fans might enjoy professor-naturalist Bernd Heinrich's Bumblebee Economics (published by Harvard University Press, 2004).
- In keeping with the illustrated theme of this column, bee enthusiasts of all ages will be delighted by biologist Jay Hosler's Clan Apis comic book and series about a honey bee named Nyuki.
- For tips on drawing insects, have a look at Drawing and Painting Insects by Andrew Tyzack. This book is both an exploration of the history of insects in art and a primer in drawing insects (very realistically). Even if you're satisfied with just sketches, though, Tyzack's book will inspire and inform your efforts.