a french garden


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Monday, Monday…

Monday, Monday

Monday, Monday

The weather forecast last night predicted snow over France with the exception of small areas such as ours.  We are protected by the Atlantic (?).  However, this morning (25 February) we awoke to a light covering of snow.  Less than a week ago we had lunch in the sunshine on the patio.

Plum blossom in snow

Plum blossom in snow

The snow does not lie on the plum blossom, it is as if the tree itself is providing some warmth.  The air temperature is around zero and the higher branches are sheltering the lower branches from a heavy incrustation and creating a circle of green around the tree.

Cherry tree flower bud

Cherry tree flower bud

The cherry tree was just starting to flower.  I wonder how hardy the little flower buds are?

Viburnum tinus

Viburnum tinus

There are no bees on the Viburnum today.

Cotoneaster berries

Cotoneaster berries

The garden has a sudden winter look, so difficult to accept after the warm, sunny days of last week.

Hellebores

Hellebores

Some flowers look more appropriate in the snow.

Dark Hellebore

Dark Hellebore

They are called “Rose de Noel” in France.

Rose de Noel

Rose de Noel

A much more appropriate name today with perhaps a much more appropriate back-drop to set them off.

Bergenia

Bergenia

There are plenty of plants in the garden that will laugh off the snow, like the Bergenia with its sturdy thick leaves.

Sarcococca confusa

Sarcococca confusa

Despite its delicate appearance the Sarcococca will be blooming in a few days when the sun is scheduled to appear and releasing its wonderful perfume as soon the temperature rises.

Yellow crocus

Yellow crocus

In the meantime the crocus

Purple crocus

Purple crocus

of all hues,

Primulas

Primulas

the Primula,

Hyacinth in snow

Hyacinth in snow

and the Hyacinth take the cold weather in their stride.

Broad beans

Broad beans

My broad beans which I plant in the autumn have grown valiantly up to now – the moment of truth.  I hope they will survive, after much worse weather last February, I have faith in their perseverance.

However, I’m not sure what will happen to the fruit trees.  Perhaps this year all I will have from my plum and cherry trees is pictures of their blossom.


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Early bumblebees

Really  early bumble bee (Bombus pratorum)

Really early bumble bee (Bombus pratorum)

I think I should give an early warning  here – this post  is about bumble bees and honey bees.  It is a sort of warning cum apology but the weather this week was amazing and the bees really took advantage of it.  I took these photographs on Tuesday 19 February in the warm sunshine although the air temperature did not go above 12 degrees Centigrade.

Early Bumble bee (Bombus pratorum)

Early Bumble bee (Bombus pratorum)

The winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) is just about the end of its flowering season but there were three or four Early Bumble bees gathering nectar from the flowers.  The pollen baskets are visibly empty.

White-tailed bumble bee (Bombus Lucorum)

White-tailed bumble bee (Bombus Lucorum)

There was a White-tailed bumble but she (they) have been visiting throughout the winter.  It was the first time I had seen any Early bumbles.

What I noticed was that that the bumblebees appeared only to be taking nectar.  They were carrying no pollen.

Honey bee on honeysuckle

Honey bee on honeysuckle

There were not many honey bees on the Honeysuckle but they, on the other hand, were carrying its distinctive yellow pollen.

Honey bees on Viburnum tinus

Honey bees on Viburnum tinus

The Viburnum tinus was alive with honey bees but no bumblebees.  The bee on the top right of the flower is carrying the ivory coloured  pollen about the same size as the bud.

Honey bee on plum tree

Honey bee on plum tree

The plum tree was starting to buzz but it was all honey bees and they all seemed to be interested in gathering pollen.

I presume the bumblebee queens are woken up by the warm weather and feel the need to restock on their energy stores.  It is certainly too early for them to start nesting.

Thursday brought glacial winds and daytime temperatures of just over zero that even the Charente sunshine could not warm.  I hope the bumblebee queens are back tucked-up in the same place that they have spent the winter.

Cute Early Bumblebee

Cute Early Bumblebee

This photograph serves no purpose except that I found it cute!

Question carder

Question carder

On the other hand I was wondering if anyone had an opinion on this photograph.

Perhaps a carder

Perhaps a carder

Another bumblebee on the honeysuckle on Tuesday was not the same colour as the usual carder bees I see.

Carder?

Carder?

It was overall much redder in colour, toning to grey on the underside rather than a pale beige.  Perhaps it was her winter colours and she goes redder in the winter like some plant leaves!  I’d be interested to hear any ideas.

Peacock butterfly on plum tree

Peacock butterfly on plum tree

I found it strange that the bumblebees did not take advantage of the plum blossom.  The peacock butterfly seems satisfied and there are far more flowers on the plum tree than the honeysuckle.

Plum tree in flower

Plum tree in flower

There seems more than enough flowers for the bumblebees to share on the plum tree but they kept themselves to themselves on the honeysuckle.  The plum tree had only burst into bloom in the preceding few days whereas the honeysuckle has been flowering all winter.  Perhaps the queen bumblebees need to refill at a known nectar source rather than wasting energy foraging if they have a steady supply.  They are on their own at the moment unlike the honey bees who have their foraging bees that are able to alert the hive to a new source of nutrients.

 


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A bit of sunshine

Yellow crocus

Yellow crocus

A bit of sunshine in the Charente Maritime and the seasons seem to slide before your eyes.

Wild violet

Wild violet

The violets appear.

Crocus

Crocus

The crocus pop up.

More crocus

More crocus

And up.

Daffodils

Daffodils

Daffodils usually signal the spring.

Snowdrop and clematis

Snowdrop and cyclamen

But there are still plenty of snowdrops in the garden.

Red hazel catkin

Red hazel catkin

The catkins are out.

Plum  tree blosssom

Plum tree blossom

The plum tree seems to be bursting to open its flowers.

Hellebore

Hellebore

The Hellebores are opening.

Bee on Viburnum Tinus

Bee on Viburnum Tinus

The Viburnum is buzzing with bees but the air temperature is only 8 degrees centigrade.  I thought the air temperature should be much higher for them to be so active.

 Winter honeysuckle

Winter honeysuckle

The winter honeysuckle still has flowers but less than before.

Red Valerian

Red Valerian

The Valerian has started to flower – in February?

Cellandine

Cellandine

The cellandine has decided it is springtime, much to the relief of the dronefly.

Celandine and bee

Celandine and bee

The celandine offers its nectar to bee and fly alike.

Wild strawberries

Wild strawberries

The wild strawberries are already flowering along the roadsides and starting to set their fruit.

Pararge aegeria Speckled wood butterfly

Pararge aegeria Speckled wood butterfly

The sun even brings out the butterflies.

European Peacock Inachis io

European Peacock Inachis io

Do they know it is February?


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More plum blossom

Plum blossom

Plum blossom

I thought by the time my twigs from the plum tree would open that the rain would stop and let me get out into the garden.  Not so.

Plum tree blossom

Plum tree blossom

Even the plum tree outside has started to flower and still it hasn’t stopped raining.  The first flower has appeared on the ninth of February, the apricot too has opened its first flowers. They are a month earlier in opening than last year.

The temperatures are mild but not mild enough to allow the bees to come and forage on the flowers for any length of time.  Are they going to miss their usual feast?

I just have to appreciate the plum blossom inside.  It is strongly scented with an unmistakable base of bitter almond.  Plums and almonds are related, both of them belonging to the genus Prunus .  It may not be obvious from their fruits but the perfume of the plum blossom is a give away.

The Mason bee nest construction continues indoors but I have also some time to test out the camera on the peach flowers in the vase.

Plum Blossom 50 mm

Plum Blossom 50 mm

My Canon 50 mm gives me clear shots of the blossom if I crop it.  My blossom is practically white and only the buds are pink tinged.

Plum blossom close

Plum blossom close

I am trying to get closer in to the flowers so I have reversed the 50 mm lens here.

Opening blossom

Opening blossom

I like to see the arrangement of the stamens as the flowers open.

The uncut version

The uncut version

With my lens reversed I get close enough to avoid having to crop.

Panasonic version of plum flower

Panasonic version of plum flower

This is taken with my old Panasonic Lumix DMC TZ18 which can get really close up.  Not bad for a point and shoot camera that will probably cost just over £100.

Comparable Canon crop

Comparable Canon crop

I can get about as close by cropping the Canon 50 mm photograph by a huge amount.  I would say value for money the Panasonic Lumix is the winner.

Stop Press – my twig cuttings of our sole peach tree have just started to blossom.

Peach blossom

Peach blossom

But it’s still raining!


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Thoughts of Mason bees and faeces

I have a shop bought bee nest that I have hanging in the front garden on the lilac tree.

Bee house in lilac tree

Bee house in lilac tree

I have been interested in increasing the number of solitary bees nesting in the garden and I was hopeful that in doing so any observations might be useful to others attempting to do the same thing.

One thing occurred to me was that while it was very easy to obtain lots of information on different patterns of nesting boxes to tempt these little furry friends to nest, there was less on what they would be eating.

I noticed that my Mason bees (Osmia rufa) were busy building nests on the 2 April last year (great things digital cameras, for dating your photographs!).

Mason bee checking out holes

Mason bee checking out holes

That means that the males probably hatched mid March, assuming that the females hatched about two weeks later and got straight onto the business of building nests.  The bees are short-lived and the females only live for about six weeks.  Mine were not active for as long as that, at least I did not observe them for as long as that.

But more than the flowers, it is the time for blossom in the trees.  The willow and plum trees in the garden were in flower in March, the rest followed on in April.

Bee in pear tree early April

Bee in pear tree early April

Bee in plum tree early April

Bee in plum tree early April

What I did next was to check out what flowers were flowering in the garden then.  I was quite surprised by what was around in the photographs and what was being visited by bees and other insects.  Aubretia, red dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), wild violets, Sarcococca confusa, winter honeysuckle (lonicera-fragrantissima), lamia, Starof Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum) and hellebores were all out when I checked back. That was just in the garden and I’m sure there would be more wild flowers; I certainly saw a lot of violets on my walks.

Bombus muscorum, in red dead nettle, ( Lamium purpureum)

Bombus muscorum, in red dead nettle, ( Lamium purpureum)

Bee on red dead nettle

This bee had no problem finding pollen at the beginning of April

This is completely circumstantial guesswork as to what the Mason bees could feed on but I felt reasonably smug about my photographic detective work……Then I read “Food Plants of the red Mason bee  (Osmia rufa L.) determined based on a palynological analysis of faeces” by  D a r i u s z T e p e r (Journal of Apicultural Science, Vo. 51. No.2, 2007).

This paper explains how a nest of Mason bees was observed over two seasons. The nest was covered nightly by a net so that the bees were prevented from making a quick escape in the morning.  The bees, taken short, were obliged to relieve themselves on the net before being released to go about their daily business of nectar and pollen gathering.

The researcher then painstaking scraped off the faeces from the net and made slides for microscopic examination to determine the origins of the pollen that was still undigested enough to be identified.  Now that is what I call dedication.  It puts my trawl through my old photos into perspective.

A simpler method would be to destroy the nest and examine the pollen packed around the eggs or to try extract some but leave the eggs in the hope they would hatch.  Teper’s method, however, is not invasive and does not destroy the eggs.  According to the paper the Mason bees visit twenty two families of plants, most of which provided the bees with both pollen and nectar but  29 % provided the bees with only pollen.  Among these pollen providing species are wind pollinated plants such as the Beech, Walnut and Oak.  Wind pollinated plants provide ample pollen which is much needed to provide the protein for the growing larvae inside the Mason bee nests.

The willow tree (Salix alba) at the bottom of the garden may be an ideal site to try another homemade bee house.    I am a little bit behind on the preparation of new nest boxes but I hope to remedy that in the next few days.

Buff-tailed bumblebee  (Bombus terrestris)

Buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris)

I can’t resist posting a photo I took on Thursday (8.2.13) of the queen bumble bee (buff-tailed, I think) out foraging.  It was only about 8 degrees C but we had some sunny spells that we have not had for a while.  She had obviously  felt the need to stir and pop out for a bit of refreshment before settling down again somewhere warm.  She reminded me I had to stir and get active if I wanted to attract more solitary bees to the garden.


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The well in winter

Grid lifted off well top

Grid lifted off well top

It has been a wet January with little respite or sunshine to work in the garden or to go on long walks.  However, the river at the bottom of the garden is now full of water for the first time in two years and there is actually water at the bottom of the old well shaft showing that the water table level is returning to normal!

The well shaft was completely covered when we bought the house and it was not until about five years ago that were able to have a grid made that was secure and yet allowed light into the well.  The ferns duly arrived of their own volition.  There are at least four different kinds and possible more.

Well bottom

Well bottom

Looking down into the well, the bottom can be clearly seen covered with water but not much more is visible – until you look closely!

Marbled Newts, Triturus marmoratus

Marbled Newts, Triturus marmoratus

The Marbled Newts are enjoying their wetter environment.  The female is probably the one on the left as it has a brighter orange dorsal crest.  These gentle creatures are omnipresent in the garden under stones or anywhere they can keep moist.  They can be handled and do not object – it is the price they have to pay for living in our garden.

Toad and marbled newts

Toad and marbled newts

The newts appear to be content enough to share the well with a toad.  This looks like the same toad which was living in the well when my husband actually went into it with a ladder – see  The Old Well.  But one toad looks much like another to me.

Common toad, Bufo bufo

Common toad, Bufo bufo

There is not quite enough water at the bottom of the well for the toad to swim, so it is more of an aquatic waddle.

Agile Frog (Rana dalmatina)

Agile Frog (Rana dalmatina)

At the bottom of the well I spotted a frog that I had never seen before.  The agile frog is skinny with long legs (according to Reptiles and Amphibians of France) – which looked correct but the size – 6.5 centimetres for the male and up to 8 centimetres for the female was too difficult for me to estimate from the top of the well.  Then I saw the Ash key which had conveniently positioned itself beside him and I guess to be about 4 centimetres long, so I am in the right size range.

Agile Frog (Rana dalmatina) tail view

Agile Frog (Rana dalmatina) tail view

I think he could have chosen a better hiding place but it gives a good view of the stripy hind quarters.

Agile frog with newts

Agile frog with newts

This shot with the newts gives a better idea of his size.  Note the circles on the water as a fine drizzle was peppering the surface.

Frog and newt

Frog and newt

The other frog in the well is, I think, the common frog, Rana temporaria, note difference in size with the toad in the foreground of the picture.  Also the larger frog appears comfortable on top of the newt.

That was what was happening at the bottom of the pond, but the old broken pipe half way up was also occupied.

2 frogs metal pipe

2 frogs metal pipe

I really can’t say what is happening here as I think it is too early for the breeding season.

3 frogs on metal post

3 frogs on metal post

Sorry about the poor image but with three of them I have even less of an idea what is going on here.  It doesn’t look a prime spot but maybe it is just the place to be to catch the unsuspecting flying things that were passing through the well.  If anyone knows any more about these frogs I’d love to hear about it.