Perennial Plants · Plant Choices

The Bee Orchid – Elaine Allison

This small flamboyant furry flower is found mostly on base rich soils.  I live in Cambridge and the surrounding countryside has areas of managed chalk land. These provide perfect habitats for this species and in the right soil type and with protection from aggressive grass species they will spring up even in urban situations.  Although, it is not common, it is not endangered and it is protected in the same way as any other native plants. However, I worked on the principle that I should not pick them, as they needed to flower and set seed. Conveniently, my source of specimens was the gardens of the flats where I lived.


For my initial sketches I worked from drawings, colour notes, measurements made in the field (garden), and photographs taken with my iPad with scale provided by a ruler.  In addition I took a couple of individual flowers and leaves back into my studio to observe in more detail. However, it was handy being able to pop outside and double check key features.

Bee Orchids mimic the shape, colour, furry texture, and scent of a female bee to attract males which carry out pollination as they mate with the flower.  Although it has been observed that insects / bees do visit them in the UK they do not always carry out pollination, consequently, the majority of flowers are self pollinated.  When the flower has been open for a few days the pollinia fall out of the anther and dangle on filaments in front of the stigma. This self pollination method seems very successful as the majority of plants I observed set seed.  When illustrating the orchid my aim was to include all stages of flower development including a swollen ovary after pollination.

Bee orchid 2


The bee orchid tends to be quite upright and these were about 40cm tall, the basal rosette elongates up the stem as the flower develops, so there is little of the plant left lower down and what there was looked pretty ragged.  Drawings of the flower spikes could also look very regimented without the luscious curves that can so aid a composition, so I needed to use their natural gentle curves to make a more relaxed layout.  As I wanted to illustrate both the plant before flowering and the flower spikes it has taken a year to complete. In June last year I worked on the flowers and then had to wait until this spring to add the plant rosette and finalise my piece.


For the painting I used Winsor and Newton artists watercolour and Arches 300g HP paper. I mostly use a 6 colour palette with one cold and one warm tone of reds, blues and yellows but for this piece I also added quinacridone magenta and winsor violet to get the clean transparent pinky purple I needed. I used a light pad to transfer images from my original studies to the final piece. Brushes used were Winsor and Newton series 7: Sizes 4, 2 and 1, the latter giving a point accurate enough to add the furry touches I needed.

My first painting is now complete and I am waiting until June to perhaps produce a second one.

Elaine Allison: May 2017


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