Bee-sting compositions

Part of my maternal cultural heritage is a delightful teatime treat called Bienenstich Kuchen, or Bee-sting cake. It is traditionally a yeast-based cake filled with creamy custard and topped with a honey-glazed almond coating that crackles in the baking.   (The article linked above speculates on two different origins for the cake’s name.)

Some recipes include honey in the cake as well as the topping, but my preference is for the sweet, carmelized topping to contrast with a bland but flaky base and custard filling. I like that ‘sting’ of sweetness on the tongue.

Similarly, in Chinese brush painting one often adds a bee (or other insect) to a painting—especially a flower-bird composition—to provide that little extra something, that bit of buzz, or ‘evidence of life’ as some painters word it.


One of my favorite monkey-painting books features several paintings with bees as objects of interest as shown in this excerpt.


Two bees hover over a daylily in this detail from a lesson in my Walter Foster book–a typical bee application in CBP.

And while those of us who pursue accuracy (or at least fair representation) in how we paint a scenario, the Chinese do not see a huge difference between a bee and a wasp. That’s understandable, as they do look alike. According to at least one of my bee-painting resources, the wasp is often just called ‘yellow-bee’ in Chinese. For bees vs. wasps go to a page maintained by the Saskatchewan Beekeepers’ Association where they have this handy image:



Here’s a site that provides a primer on the differences between honeybee and bumblebees (with pictures!), and for differences in bees and wasps, look here,  The Regina Bee Club has thrown in wasps, hornets and something called the Blue Bee. Turns out that insect I know by the name Mason Bee.

Chinese Bees, really?

My big book on Chinese symbolism and motifs (author C.A. S. Williams) tells us the bee commonly seen in China is the domestic bee or Apis mellifica. With that being the scientific name for the honeybee, I’m presuming most of my CBP books will likely be illustrating honeybees. Williams assures us the Chinese bee is “of a very gentle disposition”. But then he goes on to note that the written symbol for the bee means awl, with reference to its stinger. Gentle indeed, Mr. Williams.

Williams does admit the bee in China, as in the western world, is seen as an emblem of industriousness and thrift; that a crowd of people is metaphorically compared to a swarm of bees; and also that honey mixed with oil is a euphemism for false friendship. How odd to see the similarities in bee associations across the globe!

While bees are not cultivated in China to quite the same extent as in the western world, Williams notes that bee products—honey and wax—have been used for centuries in similar manner to how we use them. The honey is used to sweeten products and the wax for candles.

Where the Chinese do use bees more than we, is in the realm of art. It is very common to paint a bee in a traditional CBP flower-bird composition, whereas such an inclusion in western paintings would likely be seen as over-done, too cute, or too cliché. In photography on the other hand, capturing a bee visiting a flower is praiseworthy.

Bee Anatomy:

The websites linked above provide good descriptions and images to help understand bee body parts and relative sizes. (The bumblebee is the larger, furry-looking one.) The bee has the three major body parts: head, thorax, and abdomen. The last one—which also bears the stripes—ends in that highly distinguishable weaponry, the stinger. Two protruding eyes, two antenna, three pairs of leg and two wing sets complete the picture. The legs are segmented and the hind legs sport the pollen sacks. Bees collect nectar from flowers by sucking it up and storing in a honey sac/stomach which is separate from the digestion tract. For more on how they make honey look here.

My painting resources:

Many of my CBP instructional books include treatments of the bee, usually in sections on finishing flower compositions. I have two books that focus solely on insects.

  1. Walter Foster Arts series, Chinese Painting 2 addresses the bee on a page devoted to the tawny or daylily.
  2. Jane Dwight in The Bible of Chinese Brush Painting gives the bee a whole page.
  3. Johnson Su-sing Chow in his volume Insects (part of a four-volume set with Aquatics, Vegetables, and Fruits as the others.)
  4. One page in Drawing Birds and Insects by Ling Mao Caochong Juan.
  5. One sidebar illustration in Eileen Fong’s book An Exploration of Chinese Watermedia.



On the right is the Walter Foster book with the bee details in the lower right hand corner.  Ling Mao’s book also lies open to the bee page. Jane Dwight’ Bible is between the two with a book addressing nature painting in Japan, titled Birds, Beasts, Blossoms and Bugs on the left. That book has a 17th century painting featuring two wasps.

Painting the Bee

As I sit down to paint the bee, I can’t help but think of Ariel’s song from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Where the bee sucks, there suck I:

In a cowslip’s bell I lie;

There I couch when owls do cry.

On the bat’s back I do fly

After summer merrily.   

Merrily, merrily shall I live now

Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.


Here’s my first bee study, based on Jane Dwight’s approach:


Then there were variations observed in my other resources:


Then I resorted to some doodling:


Johnson Su-sing Chow and Ling Mao Caochong Juan offer bees in profile whereas most other artists render the bee as seen from above.  I’ve isolated Su-sing Chow’s bees in this little slideshow to better SEE the poses:


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Now I realized I had to take the time to study bee-painting while I was pursing the niceties of painting daylily. Old friend and CBP mentor John Nip excelled at insect-painting and he always had one or more in his flower paintings. On looking at his daylilies more closely I discovered he painted wasps (not bees) in those compositions. Here’s one of his lesson pieces showing two wasps in flight.


His wasps with their lovely long legs  reminded me of the book on Japanese art mentioned earlier. Sosen’s huge wasps (see below) are both walking on a surface, whereas John’s were midair.  Just look at the fine detail!

BeeWaspdetail 17thcentury Sosen

I’ve yet to finish the daylily studies, but am ready to ‘finish’ any floral painting now that I’ve looked at bees.  A custard-filled cake is all the more appealing with a carmelized honey topping (and a fancy name like Bienenstich), so I guess a flower that has already attracted other visitors in the form of insects has more visual appeal than one that hasn’t.  The mind’s eye works in mysterious ways!



This entry was posted in Chinese Brush Painting, insect painting, painting bee. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Bee-sting compositions

  1. Sieglinde says:

    Bienenstich was one of my favorite treats while growing up in Germany. I love your blog.

    • Hi Sigi:
      Just took a peek at some of your art via the links back to you….love that circle of Chi posted last year! Do you paint much with the hake? For a future post I am working on a flower painting done mostly with the hake.
      Cheers, RR

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