Naturalist, artist and author Steven Falk on his new field guide to bees

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and IrelandNaturalist and wildlife artist Steven Falk has had a diverse career with wildlife and conservation, including working as an entomologist with Nature Conservancy Council, and as natural history keeper for major museums. He is now Entomologist and Invertebrate Specialist at UK invertebrate conservation organisation Buglife. His new Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland will be published by British Wildlife Publishing next month.

Tell us about your role at Buglife.
At Buglife, I have quite a diverse role. I provide information and advice to colleagues, external enquirers and a plethora of external organisations. I’ve been particularly involved with overseeing the production of new red lists for assorted invertebrate groups, also providing feedback to the various national pollinator strategies, new agri-environment schemes, plus helping to develop projects for some of our most endangered invertebrate species. We also have a consultancy now, Buglife Services, which carries out and coordinates invertebrate surveys all over Britain. We’ve just done an exciting survey of the A30 and A38 in Devon and Cornwall. We need more understanding of road verge invertebrates, especially pollinators.

How did you come to write this landmark identification guide to all the bees of Britain and Ireland?
I was approached by Andrew Branson in 2012 and was initially quite reluctant, because you cannot use a traditional field guide approach for bees, as many cannot be identified to species level in the field (they require the taking of a specimen for critical examination under a microscope) and it is crucial that we keep the national dataset (run by BWARS) clean and reliable by being honest about where the limits of field identification lie. So I agreed to write it on the basis that it covered all 275 species, had reliable keys, and could appeal to both hardcore recorders and general naturalists. I knew this was feasible, because we had faced the same challenge with the seminal book British Hoverflies (Stubbs & Falk, 1983, 2002). So it is a field guide in the loose sense – it will help you to recognise much of what you see in the field, but also indicate at which point you need to take specimens and put them under a microscope. But you don’t need to collect bees or have a microscope to enjoy the book – we made sure of that.

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and IrelandThere is growing concern about the conservation status of bees – how are our bees getting on, and how might the publication of this book help them?
Yes, we need to be concerned about bees. We have already lost 25 species and several more are teetering on the edge of extinction. Good bee habitat continues to be lost. Brownfield land came to the rescue last century, but most of that has now been developed or lost its flowery early successional stages, which is what so many bees need. The research being carried out on pesticides such as neonicotinioids is also pretty disturbing – check out the work by Prof. Dave Goulson at Sussex University. It seems to be affecting bee numbers in many parts of the country. The national pollinator strategies being published by UK member states are a call to arms – let’s get monitoring bees. But the emphasis is on developing citizen science to achieve some of this, because there is little funding. High quality amateur recording is part of this plan, and Britain’s strong tradition of this makes it a realistic proposition. But the last comprehensive coverage of British bees was Saunders, 1896, and it has been the lack of modern ID literature that has held bee recording back. Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland, and the supporting web feature (embedded in my Flickr site) will hopefully fix this!

Your career as a wildlife artist began early – you worked on the colour plates for Alan Stubb’s guide to British Hoverflies when you were just a teenager. How did this collaboration come about?
I pinned some bumblebees I had caught near my home in North London when I was 12. Half of them turned out to be bee-like hoverflies, and that started a fascination with hoverflies. The following summer holiday, I went out with a net almost every day, and seemed to find a new type of hoverfly daily. I was totally hooked on them, and I painted things that fascinated me, including those hoverflies. I exhibited some hoverfly artwork at the 1976 AES Exhibition in Hampstead, and met Alan Stubbs who told me he was writing a new guide to hoverflies. I said I wanted to do the artwork (I was only 14), and the rest is history. It took 3 years of evenings, and I think I was 17 when I finished it. I’m very proud of those plates, and you can see how my style develops (plate 8 was the first and plate 7 was the last – you can see a lampshade reflection in the early ones!).

Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and IrelandDo we see any of your artwork in this book?
Sadly not, my eyesight is not great these days and I do very little drawing and painting now. But the British Wildlife Publishing ‘house artist’ is the great Richard Lewington, and he’s done a magnificent job. The bumblebee plates in particular, are just stunning, the best ever produced.

What sort of techniques do you use to produce your artwork – which is strikingly realistic and very detailed?
I painted birds a lot as a young child and was very aware of the bird artists of the time and their styles, people like Basil Ede, Charles Tunnicliffe and Robert Gillmor. I particularly liked the detail and photo-realism of Basil Ede’s work and became aware that he used gouache. So I started to use gouache and preferred it to watercolour. I’d often start with a black silhouette and build up the colour and texture on top of this, which is the opposite of watercolour painting. But others, like Denys Ovendon and Richard Lewington, show what can be done with watercolour, so it’s just a taste thing. For really intense or subtle colours, I’d need to use watercolours, because they produce a much larger colour pallete than gouache. Richard knows his watercolours – you need to if you want to tackle butterflies like blues, coppers and purple emperors. I’m possibly more proud of my black and white illustrations than my colour work. Here I was most influenced by the likes A. J. E. Terzi and Arthur Smith, house artists for the Natural History Museum. Their use of cross-hatching and stippling is so skillful, and I’ve tried to emulate this in my pen and ink artwork. Never use parallel lines in cross hatching!

Any future interesting projects coming up that you can tell us about – artistic, or conservation-based?
There are many more books I’d like to write, especially for wasps and assorted fly groups. It’s not just the subject, it’s the approach. I like getting into the mindset of the beginner and finding the right language and approach. We need to get more people recording invertebrates. I like the double-pronged approach of books plus web resources, and I have a popular and ever-expanding Flickr site that greatly facilitates the identification of many invertebrate groups. On the conservation front, I’m keen to continue promoting understanding of pollinators and to increase the effectiveness of agri-environment schemes. Invertebrate conservation is in my blood and I’ll be pursuing it to the very end in one form or another. I might even try illustrating again one day if I can find the right glasses!

Order your copy of the Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland
Visit Steven Falk’s website

Book of the Week: Wildlife In Printmaking

Continuing our selection of the very best titles available through NHBS:

Wildlife In Printmaking

Edited by Carry Akroyd

Wildlife in Printmaking jacket imageWhat?

Volume 30 in the Langford Press Wildlife Art Series.


This characterful volume features the work of 22 artists who are working within this fascinating and versatile medium to represent the natural world. With its variety of style and subject matter, Wildlife In Printmaking amounts to a rich and engrossing compendium of the best of the genre from the last few decades. The direct, yet abstract, quality of the medium of print is conveyed lucidly through the design and presentation of the book, and the artist segments – which balance autobiographical introductions, examples of their work, and accompanying descriptions of the creative process – are interspersed with three subject ‘stories’: Winter, Water and Insects & Flowers.

Familiar names include Robert Gillmor, whose artwork features on the covers of recent volumes in the New Naturalists series, and Andrew Haslen, who we interviewed here on the Hoopoe last year on publication of his book The Winter Hare.


Carry Akroyd has initiated many projects and exhibitions that have brought together groups of artists, and editing this book has been an extension of that curatorial experience. Carry has been making prints for 40 years, and her book Natures Powers and Spells: Landscape Change, John Clare and Me is also published in the Wildlife Art Series.

Available Now from NHBS

The Winter Hare – An Interview with Wildlife Artist Andrew Haslen

The Winter Hare Jacket ImageWhat first inspired you to begin painting wildlife?

I have always been interested in the countryside. As a young boy I was always out in the woods and fields, watching wildlife, climbing trees or building dams across streams. As far back as I can remember I always liked to draw and paint, the two just naturally seemed to merge. I like to think I started like everyone else by colouring in, and just carried on.

How would you describe your style as it features in The Winter Hare?

I seem to have developed several different styles or ways of producing pictures, I think they have come about because I get bored easily and want to try new things. Also I am never really happy with my work, I tend to see all the things that are wrong rather than right and this makes me move on. The book shows most of the ways I work, from linocuts which are hand-coloured to drawings, watercolours and oil paintings.

Could you briefly tell the story behind this book and how it came about?

Image from The Winter HareSeveral people have been encouraging me to do a book for several years now. I have always liked the idea but put it on the back burner… When my dog found and brought home some orphaned leverets, which I reared to adulthood, it gave me the theme around which I could build the book. The young hares were only orphaned because of my dog! I think she was trying to mother them – when they arrived on the kitchen floor one Sunday morning they were quite wet from several good licks.  Because I had no idea where she had found them I was faced with the problem of looking after them. This proved quite eventful and took up much of my time over the following months but did give me the unique opportunity of drawing them at close quarters.

In the course of running The Wildlife Art Gallery I have designed books for other people but putting one together of my own work gave me fresh problems. In the past I just worked with the material I had available but with this book I was able to paint new pictures to fit a particular spaces which slowed things up considerably.

Image from The Winter HareHares, tortoises, dogs and cats, and many different birds, including a kingfisher and a green woodpecker – feature in this book.  Are there any pictures of which you are particularly proud?

I like to paint animals that are around me and sometimes that includes domestic animals or pets. As for pictures I am proud of I guess it would be the next one I am about to paint – it is always perfect until I start putting marks on the paper.

Your paintings are full of character and intimacy – how did you get the animals to sit still for so long?!

I always try to paint or draw the individual animal rather than to just produce the standard version of it. With the hares I was in an ideal position to do this as they were around me all the time allowing me every opportunity to capture them. Getting animals to sit still is always a problem – I think the secret is not to try and to just start drawing. If the animal moves before your sketch is complete then turn the page and move on. A half-completed drawing is better than one you have tried to complete from memory if you are unfamiliar with the animal.

Hares have such an important place in English folklore. Were you conscious of this during the process of raising the orphans, or was the experience rather more prosaic?

I have always been interested in hares, including all the folklore that surrounds them. At one time the idea for the book was revolving around this. In the end it never came about, but it may form the basis for another book in the future.

Image from The Winter HareWhat were some of the highlights of the experience? Any funny stories?

Rearing the hares was not always easy and they caused a lot of disruption to my life, but it was certainly a privilege. I don’t think there are many people who can say they have been boxed by a hare.  On several occasions I would be drawing one of them and he would jump onto my drawing pad and chew the end of my pencil.

You founded the Wildlife Art Gallery in Lavenham, Suffolk – what could people expect to see there?

The gallery was first opened in 1988 to show the work of contemporary wildlife artists. From the start the gallery seemed to take on a life of its own and over the last 22 years we have staged some exceptional exhibitions. During that time the type of work we show has evolved and if people visit the gallery today they will find a cross section of artists both past and present; painters, printmakers and sculptors working in the field of wildlife art or countryside-related subjects.

Who are your heroes in the wildlife art world?

‘Heroes’ is probably the wrong description because in most cases it is the work they produce which I admire. Many, like R. B. Talbot Kelly and Eric Ennion (Eric Ennion: One Man’s Birds; Eric Ennion: A Life of Birds), are no longer with us. I never had the opportunity to meet them so all I have is their work to look at and be inspired by. There are two living artists who have made an impact on how I look at painting. The first was back in the mid 80’s when I went to an exhibition of watercolours by Lars Jonsson. The second was Kim Atkinson who ran a painting holiday on Bardsley Island in which I took part in the early 90’s. In addition there are several members of the Society of Wildlife Artists to whom I have enjoyed talking, and whose work I enjoy.

I am also influenced by individual pictures and I particularly like work by book illustrators and printmakers from the first half of the 20th Century.

How do you feel about the current state of wildlife in Britain today, and what can people do to help?

I think the best way to help is to protect and increase habitat. I have tried at home in a small way to plan the garden with wildlife in mind, with areas left to go wild, and by planting trees and digging ponds.

Buy The Winter Hare now.

Visit the Wildlife Art Gallery website.