Botanical Illustration- Blooms and Bzzzzzz.

Reference Materials
(1) USDA
(2) Xerces Society– Pollinator Conservation
(3) FAO-United NationsApisUK
(4) Knowledge Scotland
(5) My little garden blog
(6) Xerces Society- Pollinators are Garden Essentials
(7) Linné Online
(8) Insects and Flowers, The Art of Maria Sibylla Merian. 2008, Getty Museum. Brafman and Schrader
(9) The Anatomy of the Honey Bee, by R.E. Snodgrass 1910
(10) Introduction to Bee Biology by David Stone, 2005
(11) The Art of Botanical Illustration, Wilfred Blunt & William T. Stearn, 1994
(12) The Forgotten Pollinators, Stephen L. Buchmann & Gary Paul Nabhan, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 1996
(13) Images of Science, Brian J. Ford, Oxford Press, 1993
(14) Das entdeckte Geheimniss der Natur im Bau und in der Befruchtung der Blumen,
[The discovered Secret of Nature in the Structure and in the Fecundation of Flowers]
(Berlin 1793)
(15) Insects , Jean Henri Fabre, edited by David Black & illustrated by Stephen Lee, 1979


Preface:  I owe many thanks to the references listed above. These articles and books were great resources in studying the relationship between blooms and bees.


Collected honeybee specimens that died over the winter.

In reading a book about pollinators, The Forgotten Pollinators, I was reminded of the relationship of blooms and bees;  one that is most likely invisible to our busy lifestyles.  The author begins:  “It is late fall – nearly winter solstice- but because the day is sunny, it is not too late to find a yellow and black bumblebee working one of the last blooms in our garden this year.  It alights on a wand-like branch of a desert fairy duster….It is there to gather nectar, a sweet liquid diet that is increasingly scarce at this time of year.  And yet, from the flower’s perspective, the bumblebee itself is a scarce resource; it has produced plenty of nectar and pollen, but until that creature landed in its midst, its own reproduction was in no way assured.”

Whether we notice or not, the impact of this relationship is big.  The majority of flowering plants, 70-80%, rely on pollinators:  wind, water, birds, mammals or insects.  Narrowing down that group, insects are the biggest responsible party, bees being best.  There are 25-30 thousand species of bees that are effective pollinators.

ABC’s of plant reproduction

Blossom anatomy

Okra blossom anatomy, from blog: my little vegetable garden

  • Pollination is the act of transferring the pollen grains, from the anther, the male part, to the stigma, the female part, of the same flower or another flower.  The pollen grains are the flower’s male sex cells and in many species they require transportation to be received by the stigma, the female organ,  of another flower. The pollen travels down the pistil and the fertilization of the ovary combines the male and female DNA.
  • Cross-pollination  takes place when pollen is transferred between flowers of the same species; then they are able to create seeds with new DNA combinations.
  • Ovary, located at the base of the Pistil tube, contains the ovules, that when fertilized will develop into fruit and carry the seed, the bearers of genetic code.
  • Crop yield and fruit quality is greatly increased with pollination.

Pollination is a vital point of connectedness between the plant world and the animal world: namely biodiversity.   The diversity of lifeforms is responsible for what we consider essential: our food, our drink and our clothing.  The relationship between plants and animals and insects is symbiotic and thus cannot be assumed to be free or to be ignored.   A loss of clean resources such as water or native vegetation and the development of monoculture cultivation are threats to the pollinator population and diversity.

And with that biology primer, how did we come to that understanding of the relationship between bees and blooms?  Specifically, how was botanical illustration part of that path?  That answer will be sought by studying the stories of individual scientists/artists.

Carl Linnaeus (1707 –  1778)

Carl Linnaeus's Systema Naturae (1736), illustration by Georg Ehret

Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae (1736), illustration by Georg Ehret

Systematics, the order in nature, according to relationship, is a long standing pursuit by the students of botany.  Looking for an order in nature led to a series of classification systems.  In 300 B.C. Theophrastus (Greek) created a system for ‘plants  categorized either as herbs or trees or even by a description of their petals’ (linne online).  In 77 AD the Greek doctor Dioscorides, created a new system of arrangement based on the medicinal benefits of plants. Carl Linnaeus’ study in botany made him familiar with all of the classification systems.  He also studied plant sexuality, from the publications by Sébastien Vaillant (French, 1669 – 1722).  Vaillant’s work titled, Botanicon parisiensis, introduces the terms stamen, ovary, and egg.  Valliant’s work helped lead Linnaeus to the conclusion that plant classification should be based on their means of reproduction/propagation, specifically by their number of pistils and stamens.

Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (c.1533-88), Sweet violet (Viola odorata) and red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)

Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (c.1533-88), Sweet violet (Viola odorata) and red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta)

Systematic botany is rooted in the study of herbals with the anticipated harvest of medicinally beneficial plants.  Description and discrimination were critical  in the early stages of classification, the plants were ordered by medicinal properties.  In the example set by pioneers such as Theophrastus and  Dioscorides, herbal book authors gave the text the greatest importance, and thus descriptions of taste, smell, edibility and medicinal application.  Botanical illustrators did not yet grasp the importance of observing and drawing the details of the structure of the plants.  In this illustration by Morgues, the sweet violet lacks life and is most likely the result of copybook, whereas the red admiral butterfly is the result of genuine observation and is full of life.


Das entdeckte Geheimniss der Natur im Bau und in der Befruchtung der Blumen,
[The discovered Secret of Nature in the Structure and in the Fecundation of Flowers]
(Berlin 1793), by C.K. Sprengel

C.K. Sprengel

C.K. Sprengel

This book’s premise is an idea that pollinated my brain and led to this talk and to the new paintings I’m now making.  Sprengel was making the connection – the relationship between pollinators and blooms.

Blunt and Stearn, who wrote about the history of botanical illustration, describe this  book by Sprengel:

the book is a classic of biological literature, revealing almost for the first time and in surprising detail the interrelation between the form and colour of flowers and their insect guests, shown by Sprengel to be necessary for pollination and subsequent production of fruit and seeds. It much influenced Charles Darwin’s study of floral biology.  His study of floral mechanisms and associated insects, which manifested to him the wisdom of God in the creation of the natural world, resulted in this “wonderful book” (Darwin’s words). (11)


C.K. Sprengel

What strikes me about this artist, C.K. Sprengel, is that he was thinking, making connections and seeing more than his eyes could take in.  He was scratching at the invisible realm of relationships and their genesis.  It’s important to note that his ideas were new and therefore mostly rejected and scoffed.  It took a generation to consider them and other people, such as Charles Darwin, to be inspired by his published book in order for their significance to be appreciated.

As an artist, I love this book’s illustrations because of the following qualities:

  • It appears that he made many illustrations of bloom in mugshot fashion.  Alphonse Bertillon would be proud. The multiple views of blooms in profile, in full frontal, complete and dissected present a more complete anatomical understanding.  And what’s more, on several of the sheets there are bees intermixed with the flowers.  Sometimes they’re in active pollen collecting mode and sometimes they are splayed out like iconic eagles.
  • The myriad of views suggests an artist who made great efforts to genuinely understand his subject. Observational work is quality work.  The views of the bees inside of the blooms confirm the time Sprengel must have spent in the garden.
  • It’s hard to decipher his process, but it appears to have elements of a collage.  The tight composition suggests illustrations that were made separately and then clipped and compiled into a comprehensive view.

Maria Sibylla Merian (German, 1647-1717)

Passion Flower, 1730 by  Maria Sibylla Merian, published in Over de Voortteeling en Wonderbaerlyke Veranderingen der Surinamsche Insecten

Passion Flower, 1730 by
Maria Sibylla Merian, published in Over de Voortteeling en Wonderbaerlyke Veranderingen der Surinamsche Insecten

Merian was afforded artistic influence from the beginning.  Her father, Matthias Merian the Elder, was a prolific engraver and publisher, known for his scientific illustration in the work on alchemy.  He was well known for his engraving works that documented the New World, the Great Voyages (Frankfurt 1590-1622) .  He died when she was two. Her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a painter, engraver and art dealer mentored her in these disciplines.  She would later marry one of Marrel’s students, Johann Andreas Graff, and they would have two daughters.

In the foreword to her book, the Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname (Amsterdam, 1705) Merian observes that in her career as an artist-naturalist she had worked from collected specimens that had been brought back to Holland.  She had made drawings and paintings from things that once were alive but in her studio lacked the life that could be observed if only she would go.  So she went: to a Dutch colony in Suriname, South America.   Merian’s work was not solo.  She was accompanied by her younger daughter, now also a talented artist.  They explored the rainforests, studying, collecting, drawing and painting the plants, insects and animals.  They cultivated a relationship with the native population and included native knowledge in their work, such as the medicinal applications for documented plants or which caterpillars eat which plants.  From firsthand observation she was able to make drawings that encapsulated the life cycle of these plants, thus displaying in one drawing:  the bud, the bloom, and the fruit.  Her work places a priority on presenting the ecosystem of the plant. (8)

Philip Reinagle (1749 – 1833)

Calliandra grandiflora, by Philip Reinagle (1749-1833) for the R. Thornton, Temple of Flora (1799-1807)

Calliandra grandiflora, by Philip Reinagle (1749-1833) for the R. Thornton, Temple of Flora (1799-1807)

Reinagle’s illustrative work in the Temple of Flora is a piece I have posted before, but it fits in this discussion.  R. Thornton, the organizer and publisher for this book, had a vision for his publication that included an unconventional format. Instead of the standard white background, he directed that the specimens should be displayed in their natural setting. Thornton said, “Each scenery is appropriated to the subject. In the large-flowering MIMOSA [Calliandra grandiflora], first discovered on the mountains of Jamaica, you have the humming birds of the country, and one of the aborigines struck with astonishment at the peculiarities of the plant.” (11)

The Naked Eye:

The naked eye has a hard time determining the depth of information in the anatomy of a honeybee.  Since bees will fly and are not still, it helps to find dead  specimens to pin on a board.  A few techniques to be considered:  working from dead specimens, working with a hand lens, copying the work of previous illustrators and finally raw observation.  Mentally bringing all of these experiences to bear upon a botanical illustration can make the results worth the effort.

Anatomy of honeybee, 1630 by Francesco Stelluti

Anatomy of honeybee, 1630 by Francesco Stelluti

Microscopy made this illustration by Francesco Stelluti possible.  Copying this kind of work allows any artwork that follows to be based on truth.

The illustration of honeybee anatomy on the left is listed as possibly the first one made from magnification.  The microscope was a doorman to unseen worlds, bringing specimens closer to the eye.   The engraving featured here was included as an illustration with a book of poems dedicated to the Cardinal Francesco Barberini.  Entomological microscopy opened new respect for the depth of design that was found in every realm of nature.  Note the story behind the coining of the term: cells.

In 1663, Robert Hooke, presented a study on the cork tree.  He used a compound microscope to make illustrations of their porous tissue.  Their appearance reminded him of rooms and thus he coined the term ‘cells’.  Hooke’s study in the field of microscopy led him to publish a book titled Micrographia that described this formerly unseen world as evidence of an omnipotent and creative creator.(13)

Cork cells, Roger Hooke, 1630

Cork cells, Roger Hooke, 1630

in the works of Nature, the deepest Discoveries shew us the greatest Excellencies. An evident Argument, that he that was the Author of all these things, was no other then Omnipotent(13)

One of the aids in  understanding the hidden relationship between bees and blooms is understanding the bee anatomy. Note the  illustration by R.E. Snodgrass on the anatomy of  honeybee legs.

Excerpt from The Anatomy of the Honey Bee, by R.E. Snodgrass 1910 (9)

Hind legs of honeybee, by R.E.Snodgrass, 1910

Hind legs of honeybee, by R.E.Snodgrass, 1910

The hind legs of all three forms, the ,worker (F), the queen (E), and the drone (H), have both the tibia and the large basal segment of the tarsus very much flattened. In the queen and drone there seems to be no special use made of these parts, but in the worker each of these two segments is modified into a very important organ. The outer surface of the tibia (F, Tb) is fringed on each edge by a row of long curved hairs. These constitute a sort of basket (Ob) in, which the pollen collected from flowers is carried to the hive. The structures are known as the pollen/ baskets, or corbicula. The inner surface of the large, flat, basal segment of the tarsus (lTar) is provided with several rows of short stiff spines (G) forming a brush by means of which the bee gathers the pollen from its body, since it often becomes covered with this dust from the flowers it visits for the purpose of getting nectar. When a sufficient amount is accumulated on the brushes it is scraped off from each over the edge of the tibia of the opposite hind leg and is thus stored in the pollen baskets. Hence the worker often flies back to the hive with a great mass of pollen adhering to each of its hind legs. The pollen baskets are also made use of for carrying propolis.

The honeybees need the plant: pollen, nectar, water and propolis are the building blocks of the honeybee life.  From those ingredients, they feed their young, create honey, and make wax for building their home.

‘Pollen, a plant protein source for the young, provides nitrogen, phosphorus, amino acids, and vitamins essential for development of these vegetarians… Nectar, obtained from floral nectaries deep within flowers, provides a pure carbohydrate source for all stages. Water is essential for hydrating all of the individuals within a hive and cooling it throughout the year. Propolis, the final substance brought into the hive, is also called “bee glue.” It is a plant resin used to build and maintain hives.’
(Introduction to Bee Biology by David Stone, 2005)

Local Pollinator Gardens

Visiting a pollinator friendly garden is fruitful.  Below is a list of local pollinators to keep on your radar.  This list was provided by the cooperative extension office and pictures of each are listed on their website.

List of NC Pollinators (not complete):


Bees by Paul Mirocha

Shaggy fuzzyfoot bee
Carpenter bee
Hummingbird moth
Sweat bee
Syrphid fly
Monarch caterpillar
Bumble bee
Ambush bug
Soldier beetles
Hairstreak butterfly
Honey bee
Halictid bees

Jean Henri Fabre

Stephen Lee, Crabspiders on Cistus, note the honeybees, 1979

Stephen Lee, Crab spiders (Thomisus onustus) camoflaged on Cistus, note the honeybees, 1979

Jean Henri Fabre is a Frenchman who made the study of insects an art-form.  Throughout his life he was a naturalist, a forerunner in the practice of field observation.  While managing a career as a school teacher and a home life of marriage and fatherhood he managed to write  many articles and books based on his observations of insects.  Perhaps one of his more famous studies was on the hunting wasp Cerceris.  Fabre’s passion was behavioral studies.  The illustration of the crab spiders ambushing the honeybee is an illustration from a book on Fabre’s work.

Fabre’s noted the following about the Crab spiders:

Here the bees plunder enthusiastically, fussing and bustling in the spacious whorls of the stamens.  The spider posts herself in her watch house under the rosy screen of a petal.  Cast your eyes over the flower.  If you see a bee lying lifeless with legs and tongue outstretched, draw nearer; nine times out of ten the Thomisus will be there.  The thug has struck a blow; she is draining the blood of the departed. (15)

The opportunity for observation is one that often has to be initiated.  For the illustrator, a pollinator garden is a welcome invitation to drawing models.  Creating hospitable environments for pollinators in your own yard is not only good for this year’s garden production, but the longer term payoff is also considerable.  One theme of recently published articles indicate that planting a mix of native wildflowers within your current garden and landscape design restores a resource that  attracts pollinators and helps to rebuild their populations.

Such personal and public display gardens, of course, give considerable satisfaction to their stewards. But do such plantings have any true conservation value in the face of all the human disturbance disrupting the subtle and complex interactions between plants and pollinators on a global scale?  In and of itself, a small pollinator garden for butterflies, hummingbirds, or bees cannot possibly conserve entire populations or species of threatened or endangered pollinators and plants.  It can, however, remind gardeners, neighbors, and others of the primacy of the precious keystone relationships between them. …To be sure, we are seldom moved to protect any life that we haven’t first noticed and then grown to know intimately and to love. (12)

Habitat loss is one of the conditions that causes bee declines and is a reachable response.   Those who are interested in pollinator conservation have a lot of resources to choose from, such as the Xerces foundation.  UNC’s botanical garden is a local source for botanical illustration classes and gardening resources for conservation: such as  native plants for your garden.  Locally, Forsyth county boasts the historic Reynolda Gardens.  As you well know this public resource is a center for  informal education, adult education and child education.  It was my honor to receive the hospitality of Reynolda Gardens as they welcomed the installation of a beehive in the garden.

While art has long presented blooms and bees as elements for the decorative arts, these elements are good and not just for the sake of their aesthetic beauty.    The relationship of pollination and propagation is intimately linked to our own survival.  The small scale of these blooms and bees does not equal the magnitude of their role in the bounty of our grocery stores, clothing outlets or national economy.

This entry was posted in Botanical Illustration. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *