Brush and ink drawing of a leafcutter bee in flight
A leafcutter bee in brush and ink

The Buzz on Bees Episode 2: Interview with Christine Farmer

by Julie on April 20, 2012
Hello and welcome to the “Buzz on Bees,”’s monthly interview series. This month’s guest is Christine Farmer: artist, photographer, and friend to bees.

Christine has an amazing website that includes a segment about her adventures with leafcutter and other native bees. Her eye for detail and appreciation for the beauty of these animals is evidenced in her photography, illustrations and writings about the bees who use her garden. I was enchanted when I discovered her blog and delighted that she was able to take the time to share a bit of her story with us today.

How long have you been an artist? What attracts you to draw what you see and imagine?

I’ve drawn on and off since I was small, and I worked a lot on my drawings in my twenties. But I took a detour into Ancient History and it’s only been the past five or six years that I’ve come back to drawing, especially since I had my garden studio built. I particularly like working in ink, and seem to tend towards a lot of detail especially of small subjects, and I think this leads me to my subject matter.

I love collecting things on walks, or from the garden, especially things with a lot of texture such as autumn leaves, pine cones, shells, stones, dried flower heads. I have boxes and drawers full of the things I’ve collected to study. I press flowers and leaves and I’m also planting a bottle garden with small ferns and mosses. But not everything takes well to being collected, and is better drawn in the wild and “preserved” that way.

Bees are a challenge for me because dead ones in a drawer aren’t very stimulating subjects, and live ones don’t sit still on a drawing table! So I have taken to photography to capture their detail, and I’ve been combining the information from the photographs with sketches of them in action to produce the bee drawings. I’ve been working on the bee illustrations for some time now with a view to putting them in a book.

Your “About Me” page mentions that you studied ancient history and archaeology, focusing on human uses of caves. What attracted you to study ancient history? In your research about cave use did you ever come across cave images of bees?

I first travelled to Crete as part of a schools cruise and fell in love with the place and its history, particularly the Bronze Age culture. The interest in caves really came about from an interest in landscape and sites of human activity. Caves have a special attraction since they were re-used over hundreds of years for shelter, often by shepherds and sometimes for keeping bees. Later their functions changed and people used them for burials and ritual purposes.  But the cave use I studied was mostly of Bronze Age date, which is much more recent than the era of most cave painting in Europe.

I can see parallels in my cave research and my interest in the bee houses which the bees clear out every year and re-use as nesting sites. I often think the bee houses look like cliff-faces filled with the openings of caves.

The Greeks have quite a few myths about bees, and some depictions of Minoan goddesses have them resembling insects, with pinched-in waists and bee-like arms. There is also the famous Malia pendant which depicts two bees facing each other, and is a fabulous and detailed piece of workmanship in gold.

How did you become interested in bees? What was your first experience with them?

I think I’ve been interested in bees since my earliest awareness of them crawling over the clover in my parents’ lawn. I think they are creatures which inspire curiosity, since they are so busy and intent on their task in the flowers; they come and go and it’s natural for us to wonder where they’re going, what homes do they build and how long do they live? When I was able to plant my own small garden I did it with the intention of attracting plenty of wildlife and set up some bee homes quite early on. Having them nesting and feeding in the garden is really satisfying, and I had my studio built there so I could study the activities of its inhabitants at close quarters.

How have you learned about the bees? Is there a particular person, people, or resources that have helped you in your learning?

Most of what I know about the bees I have learnt by observing them in my garden, by trial and error in providing habitats, and through drawing and photographing them which forced me to learn about their forms, movements and habits.

I love reading older books on bees, especially those by J H Fabre, and Edward Saunders. Not only are they filled with a great deal of information, but the descriptions are very poetic and evocative. I prefer books written in a time when people were full of wonder and appreciation of the world. Particular questions of how and why may remain unanswered, but I think the important thing is to keep asking the questions, to keep wondering, to keep that awe and fascination for natural things.

Your renderings of the bees are lovely – how long does it take you to complete a drawing?

My larger drawings can take several weeks or months to complete, but a drawing of a bee will be comparatively a lot quicker; but even so may take up to a week if I get very involved with the subject. I will sketch an impression of a bee in the garden in a few moments, but once I’m at the drawing table with a photograph or specimen I’ll have the magnifier out and be merrily inking in hairs and taking days in the process.

I worked for a long time with technical pens, which allow a lot of very fine detail, but more recently I’ve found I love using dip pens and especially the Gillott nibs which are great for small marks and allow much more expressive lines. The other technique I have been working with more and more is using very fine brushes with an ink wash. I add layer on layer of transparent ink with the brush which allows me to record my beloved fine detail. I really like this method for drawing leaves, and I’m enjoying exploring leaf shapes and textures alongside the bee drawings. In the book I’ll be using all these ink techniques to illustrate the bees’ activities through the year.

What is your favorite kind of bee and why is it your favorite?

I love the leafcutters, which were the first bees to really adopt the bee houses and make their homes in my garden. They are great bees to watch because they are quite placid and patient, and don’t attack or sting, but put up with a lot from me and my intrusive lens. It’s possible to get right up close and see them constructing their nests from cut leaves, and if you follow them by sight you can find where they are harvesting the material and hopefully see them cutting the leaf discs in front of you, which is a magical sight.

The first time I saw a leafcutter cutting a rose leaf felt almost surreal. The bees are so precise in cutting the leaves with their jaw, dexterously curling the cut piece in their legs, and then taking flight just as the final snips are made.

The leafcutters are solitary, rather than social bees, which also probably appeals to me. They are industrious, creative. But perhaps the thing I almost envy them for is the way they know what they are doing with their lives, and are so adept at doing it! They know what kind of leaf they need for a particular task and cut exactly the right amount of material, fly home and use it expertly, chewing and pushing the leaves into position to make cells in which to lay their eggs. They labour on for hour after hour, producing something beautiful and completely useful for purpose. In short, I’m full of admiration for the leafcutters!

You talk about bee nest blocks on your website – could you tell us more about your experiences with them?

I’ve been providing boxes and homes for the bees for several years now. At first I put up a home of cardboard tubes from the Oxford Bee Company, and after an initial year when there was some mason bee activity there was no nesting at all, and I almost gave up hope that anything would use the tubes. However, it seems that the bees prefer them to be a little old and weathered, and also in a secure place rather than the rickety fence I’d initially attached them to. I have found that while slightly smaller solitary bees love the cardboard tubes, my leafcutters tend to prefer to nest in bamboo stems which are a bit roomier. Last Spring I also began drilling holes into the ends of logs, and many of these were colonised by the leafcutters over the course of the summer, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed to see how many hatch out this year. It seems that of all the nest sites I’ve provided so far, the drilled logs have been the favourites for the leafcutters.

I think the best thing is to provide a variety of possible homes and see what the bees in your locality take to. Solitary bees can nest in all sorts of nooks and crannies even if you don’t provide them with special homes. I have had people come to my website with queries about leafcutter nests in flowerpots and garden umbrellas amongst other places. But providing them with ready-made tubes and holes certainly helps the numbers.

What are your favorite plants for attracting these pollinators?

I like to grow herbs and cottage garden plants, and some plants that may be considered ‘weeds’. My favourite is probably the dead nettle; the hairy footed flower bee and many bumble bees seem to love this plant which has a long flowering season. I also like borage, which the leaf-cutters feed on, comfrey, rosemary, thyme and forget-me-not for the tiny bees, foxglove, feverfew, salvia, and various alliums including chives which attract a lot of red-tailed bumbles. The leafcutters also like the roses for their nests of course, but they do use other kinds of leaves and even flower petals to suit their purpose.

What kind of camera did you use to capture the lovely close-up images of the leafcutters on your website?

The leafcutter photographs were taken using a Canon EOS 5D, with an EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens.

Learning how to photograph the bees was a challenge in itself. The leafcutters don’t mind a rather large lens right up close while they’re working, but other bees are much shyer and of course quick in movement. They’ll choose to feed on the other side of a flower just to keep out of shot! The main thing is to predict what the bee will be doing next, so it helps to learn which plants a particular bee is likely to move on to next, and they all have their favourites. So photographing the bees helped me to learn a lot about their habits, work and preferences for different plants and materials.

Looking through a macro lens also means I can see the bees and what they’re doing right up close, like watching their lives through a magnifier. Individual bees begin to stand out because you can see little nicks in their wings or other features, and you can follow the same bee and see them in different parts of the garden. I get quite attached to individual bees as I follow them about their day!

What is the best way for my readers to get in touch with you?

People can get in touch with me via email, from the contact page of my website.

Read the Original Interview on the Bee Mentor site here.