Beauty and the beast


Red vine leaves 

It was a beautiful day in early October (see my post A summer day in October – 7 October 2012), it seemed as if nature was trying to hold onto summer but the signs of impending autumn were all around.  I saw the beautiful autumn colours of this vine and I took a quick picture before I was distracted by a passing butterfly, a beautiful yellow one that enjoyed seeing me chase it from perch to perch without every letting me get close enough for a shot.  I forgot about my lovely vine in the heat of the chase.

Stictocephala bisonia

It was not until later that I made my connection between the beauty of the vine leaves and a beastie I had managed to photograph earlier.  I was rather contented that I had at last got a photograph.  It is very tiny, just less than one centimetre long, and extremely nimble.  I had caught glimpses of it in the undergrowth during the summer but it had hopped out of sight before I had got a good view of it, much less a photograph!

Stictocephala bisonia

The Latin name reflects the strange bison-like shape of this creature and it was not until I found out its life cycle that I made a connection with my red vine leaves.

Ceresa bubalus or Stictocephala bisonia or cicadelle bubale 

The larvae of Stictocephala bisonia hatch out mid-May to mid-June and feed on herbaceous plants such as dandelions, clover and plantain without causing too much harm to the plants and after five moults become adults.  By mid-July to mid-August the adults are ready to breed and can be found in the vineyards (also in orchards as they are partial to apple trees too) and the females lay their eggs on the young vines on wood between 1-3 years old usually.  The females make a longitudinal slit in the bark and deposit about six eggs each side of the incision.  The eggs are incubated in the safety of the plant until the developed larvae drop to the earth the following year to restart the cycle.

Unlike the herbaceous plants that the adults and larvae feed on, the vines can suffer from their role as nursemaid to the insects’ eggs.  The incisions of the egg laying female and the larvae cause a disruption of the vascular sap bearing system of the vine and result in the spectacular reddening of the leaves.  Heavy and repeated infestation can result in weakening of the vine.  The best treatment is to cut and burn all infected parts.

View of the vineyard

If I had thought a little more about why a single vine plant should be turning such and unusual colour I would have realised at the time that something was amiss – it was all the fault of that yellow butterfly.

(Many thanks to the  l’Institut Français de la Vigne et du Vin (IFV)for the above information)

First visit to a beekeeper

We have been buying honey supplied by a local producer, Michel Henry.  In fact we discovered that he lived very close to us and we were able to make his acquaintance and were invited to visit his hives.

Hives in the garden

The entrance to the house is very discrete but once inside a beautiful well-tended garden opens out and tucked away on one side are the beehives.  He keeps the black honey bees that are native to France.  As he talked his passion for bee keeping became obvious and he was happy to answer all my questions.  He has been keeping bees for twelve years and it is a hobby that has grown over the years.  He started with one hive and when one year the honey that he had harvested did not last the family over the winter he decided to add more hives.  Now he has twelve hives.

Glass topped hive

One of the hives is equipped with a glass top so I was able to take a peek inside without troubling the bees.

Bees with pollen sacs

At this time of year there is still a good number of flowering plants in the area and on the day of my visit the ivy had just started flowering.  There are large quantities of ivy flowering in the woods nearby.

Hornet trap

I mentioned that I had not seen any Asiatic hornets since I had trapped them in the spring.  Unfortunately they seem to target the hives as one swooped down and took a bee as we watched.  Michel explained that he has to watch helpless as they sit on a branch out of range and chew the head, legs and wings off before taking the body back to their nest.  He was quite surprised to see one attacking so late in the season as the bees are used for feeding the hornet larvae.  Later in the season the hornets would be more likely to try to steal the honey, especially from weaker colonies.  Michel keeps a large spade handy which he uses to swat them with.

He uses the hornet trap constantly and when he discovered I had success with mine in the spring he gave me a bottle of his special lure which he makes himself from bee by-products and which he says will prove more efficient than my beer and fruit jam concoction.

Pet bees?

Apart from the other hives Michel possess another hive which he does not keep for its honey.  He allows the bees to use it like a wild hive.

The hive exposed

He explained that the bees are capable of surviving cold weather but dampness is a problem, so he protects the old hive with a plastic tub and keeps it under the shelter of a tree.

I was surprised by the old hive and straight away thought of some of the pictures of hives portrayed on honey labels.  This was the shape of hives I had seen drawn in old books when I was a child.  He explained that these hives had no supers and would have to be renewed annually and he doubted if anyone would be able to make them any more.

He said they were made from straw bound together with bramble.

Eighty year old hive

This hive belonged to an old uncle of Michel and by back calculation he reckons it must be about eighty year old.

Old style hive

This one he believes to be a little younger and he saved it from being burnt as rubbish when a house was being cleared out, although many others were destroyed.

There is something very homely about the old style hives.  I am impressed by the neatness and care that went into their construction.  I would have loved to know how anyone could make something like that out of straw and brambles.

I did a quick internet search and found what I was looking for, unfortunately the commentary is in German but the film speaks for itself.  It does last for fifteen minutes but I found it fascinating.  I think they cut young willow to use as the binding material but perhaps someone could enlighten me here.

Honey comb full of honey

It was such a lovely visit.  He showed us equipment for extracting the honey and testing that there is not too much moisture in it, inside his spotless centre of operations.

He asked me if I intended to start keeping bees.  I explained that I was very interested in Bumble bees and asked him if he knew of anyone else that might be interested.  He did not, and mentioned that at one of their regional bee keeping meetings someone had brought a Bumble bee along for identification but no-one had been able to help.

I also explained I went back to the UK for short periods from time to time.  He said that should not be a problem and on the financial side beginning bee keepers often borrow equipment.

I must admit I am greatly drawn to bee keeping but I would still have to learn a lot more before I took the big step.

Alien circles and fairy rings

Black circle

On Monday we awoke to find a large black circle outlined in the back garden.  It has a diameter of approximately eight and a half metres (nearly 28 feet).  Of course we had to exchange all the “Martians landing” jokes but strangely there was an oily deposit on the grass which did look like spilled fuel!

Closer view of blades of grass

The grass was heavily covered with black globules.

I picked off this blade of grass to have a closer look at it but I could see no finer detail in the black globules.  After a quick check with the Royal Horticulural Society’s web page, it seems to be a slime mold probably Physarum cinereum or a closely related species.

New clover growing through

I had wondered if there would be any changes in it after a few days but slime molds are not exciting to watch.  After a few days it is still adhered to the edges of the new clover leaves which are growing from the inside and it is giving their edges a grey frill.  By now it has probably been  induced to form spores by the sunshine and these spores will be spread by the wind and anything that gets in contact with them.  As it is the first time they have appeared in the garden I am letting them take their course and hope that we will not get the appropriate weather conditions to welcome them again.  The garden is never water-logged and we get a high level of sunshine even in the winter time so I hope it will not be a frequent occurrence.

Fairy ring

On the other hand, the fairy rings are welcome.  They appear at the bottom of the garden (as I believe is the custom for fairies) and coincide with the advent of the cepes in the woods round about.

Closer view of the mushrooms

They range in size from about 1.5 to 5 centimetres and have a smooth cap that is raised in the centre.  When you pick them they have their own particular odour.  I find it difficult to describe but it reminds my neighbour Annie of the smell of almonds.  I think they are Marasmius oreades, or faux mousseron.

The underside an stem

The stem detaches easily from the earth so I use scissors to collect them so that I can keep them as clean as possible.  It is then recommended to snip off the stem.  After that I wash them gently in a bowl to remove any adhering soil and drain them on kitchen towel.  They are then ready to cook in any mushroom recipe.

The purists would probably just wipe the cap with a damp cloth and certainly if they are to be dried this is the method to follow.  They air dry very easily if you do not wash them.

I took the easy way out and made an omelette as I was on my own.  It is certainly not fast food as the collecting and cleaning takes time but I had the satisfaction that it was truly “local” dish as the eggs had been brought to me by Annie who is only 200 metres away.

Finished product!

I do not recommend anyone eating the mushrooms they might find in their garden as, unfortunately, there are many similar look-alikes that are not edible.  I would not have touched them but they were recognised by a friend who knows his mushrooms and I know they were gathered and eaten from the garden before we came here.

While I was collecting the mushrooms I saw something I would have otherwise have missed as it was so well-camouflaged.

Close-up of spider, perhaps too close?

These things do not appeal to me and if you feel the same please just skip the rest of the blog.

It was what it was carrying that amazed me!

Rear view to show grasshopper

This creature had caught a grasshopper and he was able to transport the body in a remarkably nimble manner.  I think that it is a Hogna radiata which is apparently quite common in France.

A swift departure

He seemed also capable of jumping and was most anxious that I might steal his precious bundle.  I am not sure whether to consider myself lucky to have seen it or unlucky as it was quite gruesome.

A Summer Day in October

Last Friday was the fifth of October and the sun shone in the blue Charentais sky like a beautiful summer day with the temperature reaching 26 degrees centigrade.  There was no wind and it seemed an ideal day to explore another little pond just about a kilometre or so away from the pond at Madion.  It would have taken a bit too long on foot so we opted for the bikes so that we would not lose the afternoon sun.

The pond and the Charentais blue sky

The pond is not far from a small road and has woods and vineyards behind it.  The surrounds of the pond had been cleared to stop the woods encroaching.

Common darters

From a distance I spotted what looked like an extremely large dragonfly but as I got closer I realised it was two dragonflies in tandem.  This was the first time I have seen dragonflies laying eggs.  I would say these are Common darters (Sympetrum striolatum), as we get a lot of them in this area.

Dipping into the water

It was fascinating to watch the aerobatics of the pair.

Vertical descent

The eggs were laid at the edges of the pond.  The tail would just break the surface of the water as if to ensure that the eggs did not float on the surface to be easy prey to predators.  Presumably, the eggs would quickly find a safe spot on the murky floor of the pond.

Another dipping

The frenetic tandem flight continues with the female’s tail being dipped for her to release the eggs.  It looks a tiring exercise for the pair of them as they zoom from place to place, stopping from time to time at a selected spot for repeated dippings of the females tail.

There was more than one pair of the same variety of dragonfly taking advantage of the sunshine for mating and laying their eggs.

Willow Emerald Damselfly, (Chalcolestes viridis)

I also noticed a Willow Emerald Damselfly sitting looking beautiful beside the pond, its metallic green colour sparkling in the sunshine.

I wondered what was happening at the other pond so partly pushing the bikes through the grass we decided to take a “short cut” thereby avoiding the road.

Ready for the vendage

We passed some vines, these are the Uni Blanc, as they are called here, or Ugni blanc if you prefer the Italian spelling which are widely grown around here and are likely to end up as Cognac or Pineau.  The harvesting of the grapes has just begun.  Almost all of the vines are harvested mechanically, apart from a few older vineyards where the distance between the vines is too narrow for the machines to pass and so these have to be harvested by hand.  This is true of our immediate vicinity and does not hold true for vineyards producing high quality wine.

Ragwort cafe

There were a few Ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) plants in the grass but this  one seemed particularly  attractive to the local insects.  The female common blue seemed to be receiving a lot of attention.

First advances

The sunshine and the advancing season led to pairing off on the Ragwort.

On the ground

The pairing game continued on the ground but we wanted to push onto the other pond to see what was happening there.

At the other pond things were quieter and although there were a couple of darters performing their frenetic egg laying dance I could not get a shot of them.  Perhaps it was too late in the evening (our short cut having provided more distractions than anticipated) but these days the fields and woods are getting quieter.

Peacock butterflies in the Hemp Agrimony, (Eupatorium cannabinum)

A month ago the Hemp Agrimony was in flower and full of butterflies, bees and other insects.

Hemp Agrimony seed head

Now the flowers have finished and the little seeds float around the plants and waft in the air like miniature parachutes.  Without their flowers the wood edges have become a lot quieter, less nectar bearing flowers for the bees and other insects.  The hornets are still on patrol though.

European hornet, (Vespra crabro)

They patrol back and forth on the look out for bees or other insects.  It seems late in the season for them to still be hunting for prey for their larvae but I have seen more now than earlier in the year.

They take their searching seriously and trace the wood edges like little yellow bullets.

Run butterfly!

I think the butterfly outclassed the hornet but it did not stay around to argue.

Asian hornet, (Vespa velutina nigrithorax)

The one thing that puzzles me is that the hornets I trapped in March were all Asian hornets, non-native hornets which are causing concern among bee keepers in France.  However, I have never seen any of the Asian hornets in the countryside during my walks.  So much the better for the bees.

Carder bumble bee

The wild mint is still happily flowering providing a rich nectar, but the bumble bees are much reduced in numbers, the majority that I see outside the garden are Carder bees.

Butterfly on side

On the way home I noticed a butterfly on its side, attended by another one.

Mouth to mouth resuscitation?

I could not imagine what they were doing, so I approached closer.  Too close.

Dead butterfly?

The apparently dead butterfly, finding her partner had flown off and left her, took wing leaving me feeling foolish.  Even the poor butterflies don’t get a chance to get on quietly with their life when I’m around with my camera.

Beasties file

I enjoy taking photographs of the things I see in the garden and around me.

Ladybird pupa

I took this on the third of July this year and stored it in my Beasties file.  It was not until this September that I was treated to a full slide show of Ladybird metamorphosis that I could identify it as a ladybird pupa.

I like not only watching nature but learning more.  I really enjoy following “Back Yard Biology” not just for the superb photographs but the great commentaries that go with them.


Roe deer

Roe deer (Chevreuil)

We went out looking for cepes this morning.  We had just left the house and noticed a couple of Roe deer taking the same path as we do when we go along the little canal.

At least it was a compensation for finding no fungi at all in the woods, not even a slug.  The leaf litter was dry, too dry for cepes but maybe later.