a french garden


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Les saints de glace is passed!

Amelia left me in charge of planting the little tomato plants that she had grown from seed.  Every time that I thought of planting them my French neighbours warned me that I must wait for les saints de glace to pass.  The country folks in most of Europe, especially in this little corner of France still believe firmly in the traditions that must have come through the Middle Ages and maybe beyond.

Special prayers used to be said in all rural churches, to avert a late frost that might damage the crops on Saint Mamert day on the 11th of May, and on Saint Pancrace day on the 12th of May, and also on Saint Servais day on the 13th of May.

I have always respected the local traditions and in addition I don’t want to be taken as a fool by my neighbours.  So I waited until this week to finish planting the little seedlings.  I will keep my fingered crossed, but may they prosper and may the saints protect them from frost!

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So now that the saint ice has passed, I have planted the seedlings.  The little tomato plants seem to be doing well next to the peas that are all in flower now.

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Our favourite vegetable, the broad beans that we planted last autumn, are now swelling up nicely and should be ready for picking soon.  I like cooking a few young beans with their jackets on, and eat them – shell and all – with a little salt and a sprinkling of crushed seeds of the Persian Hogweed, heracleum persicum.  This herb grows wild all over Europe.  Amelia also cooks a lovely Iranian dish with rice and completely shelled (i.e. minus furry pod and inner bean skin) broad beans and chopped dill.  She serves it with roast lamb or roast chicken.  It is called baghali polo and that is the king of all rice dishes for me.

Here in France, our neighbours bring raw broad beans on picnics and shell them and eat them with a little butter and salt.  I am not exactly keen on that myself, but as they say here:  chacun à son goût – each one to their own taste.

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One side of the vegetable patch we have a row of mara des bois strawberries, which are now full of flowers and little fruit.  Next there is a row of red onions, if you would ignore the weeds (please!), then French flat leaf parsley, and then a row of dill, or as they call it here, aneth.  I have not had the heart to pull out the large borage that self seeded from last year, as right through the summer it continuously flowers and attracts the bees.  We add the pretty little flowers to salads, and I am told here that the flower and the leaves make a good herbal tea.  I must try that!

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A few months ago, our friend Michel gave Amelia a clump of comfrey or consoude, as they called it hereImage

The little flowers are very pretty and yes they do attract the bees and the bumble bees.  That is why Michel gave them to Amelia.  They are now in full flower.

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Our little potager, or the vegetable patch is nearly all ready and waiting for Amelia to return.  Not that I am complaining, but then my duties as the ghost blogger should also finish.

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Fête du Printemps

This week, Amelia has returned to England and has left me to look after her “French garden”.   I’m the husband that makes the bee hotels and now has been entrusted to keep her posted with the happenings in the garden while  she is in the U.K.

There is a lot to do this time of the year in our garden: there are weeds to pull out after the rainy start to the year; there are new vegetables to be transplanted into their allotted rows in the vegetable garden; and she is hopeful of reports on bee activity and the flowers that she will miss seeing.

But today I have given myself a day off and visited the Fête du Printemps – the Spring fête at the beautiful little town of Saint-André-de-Lidon.

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One views the old mill across the fields of rape as one approaches the town.  Getting closer, I noticed that the mill and the parcel of land are for sale.  There are a lot of windmills dotted around the area, some in ruin and some lovingly renovated.

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The fete was held in a private garden which was worth a visit on its own merit.  It is a beautifully designed garden with a winding stream running through it.  This is unusual in our local area.  The private gardens here are very different from the UK.  The are usually much larger in the countryside but more attention seems to be paid to the vegetable garden than to ornamental flowers and plants.

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The stalls offering all kinds of flowers, and vegetables were spread artistically across the garden.Image

Our friend Michel and his wife Josianne were proudly displaying their honey and other products from the hives, including soap and candles.

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They even had a section of a working hive on display.  Image

The busy bees were really attracting the attention of the visitors, particularly the curious youngsters.Image

But I was fascinated by the use of old farming equipment that were used in the garden as decoration.Image

Even an old bedpost had been put to good use.Image

I found a living flower stand made from growing willow branches quite appropriate in that garden.Image

But I could not leave that beautiful garden without paying a special attention to the bumble bees.

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Come back soon, Amelia, your bumble bees and I miss you!


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A day in the life of the bee hotel

We hung one of the new bee hotels within easy site of the patio so that we could watch the bees come and go: imagining relaxing as we sipped our coffee.  For the naturally curious it doesn’t quite work out like that.

Take a warm sunny day in May, the temperature has reached 30 degrees C, then everything shoots into action with the bees.  The Osmia cornuta had blocked up eight bamboo rods and I was getting ready to do a blog on how things had gone.

A bee arrives

A bee arrives

Then a bee arrives but it is not Osmia cornuta and it has attached something to the bamboo.

The baddies arrive

The baddies arrive

Leaving her nest exposed, what looked like a cuckoo bee arrived and some little flies were also hanging around, one is just above the head of the black and yellow guy.

Drosophilidae type fly

Drosophilidae type fly

I always think of little fruit flies as harmless but a fly – Cacoxenus indagator – is a parasite of the mason bees.  There is a very interesting New Scientist article on Cacoxenus indagator and they look suspiciously like these flies.

Mason bee returns

Mason bee returns

The mason bee seems oblivious to the danger and continues on her masonry business.

Two unconcerned bees

Two unconcerned bees

I found the behaviour of the bees peculiar as I had read that they often chased off cuckoo bees that approached their nest sites.  It is now six minutes since the little packet has been hanging on the end of the bamboo cane.

Yellow ventral bristles

Yellow ventral bristles

Osmia rufa have yellow ventral bristles called scopae so this could be an indication of the species of these bees  but the photographs are not too clear.

Better yellow shot

Better yellow shot

This shows the yellow ventral brushes better but was taken later than the following pictures.

Packet embedded in hole

Packet embedded in hole

The packet has now been stuck into the centre of the bamboo, eleven minutes after being brought back.

Almost finished

Almost finished

It took another five minutes of work until she was finally satisfied with the finished job and that meant borrowing some mortar from the neighbouring hole.  Excuse me, madam, but that hole has been in place since the 15 April and you were not around at this time.  This leads me to the accusation that you are purloining the mortar of an Osmia cornuta.  I’m not sure whether the plea that you are tired and need a break is a good enough excuse.

Taking refreshment

Taking refreshment

It is not far for them to go to the Star of Bethlehem flowers (Ornithogalum umbellatum) to recharge their energy levels with some nectar.

Back to the baddy

Back to the baddy

One thing is sure cuckoo bees don’t build nests and it is just what this one appeared to be doing.  I think I can see a clutch of eggs in the hole.

Partly sealed hole

Partly sealed hole

This is no Nomada bee but a potter wasp, probably Ancistrocerus sp. and perhaps Ancistrocerus auctus.

In this case it would be no particular threat to the mason bees as there was plenty of room for everyone so that would explain their lack of concern for the black and yellow visitor.

There were more surprises on the way for up until now no-one had shown any interest in the holes in wood on the lower log.  Then along came one of my favourite bees.

Anthophora plumipes female

Anthophora plumipes female

She had caused me a lot of problems to identify as she is a light form not like her ginger sisters in the UK.  They also nest in the house wall at the back and nectar on the Cerinthe in the front garden but more about them later.

Needless to say I was happy to see them trying out the bee house for size.

Clean out

Clean out

I’m not sure what she is doing here.  Perhaps removing some of the sawdust but when they nest in the walls they tend to kick out the dust with their feet.

Anyway it was a very exciting day.  The photographs were much poorer than I had hoped for but the nest is too high for me to hold the camera and avoid trampling on the border underneath.  We erected it for the bees not thinking sufficiently about photographing them.

I checked on the state of play later in the evening at eight p.m. and was surprised to see the wasp still there.

Settled for the evening

Settled for the evening

There are now twelve bamboo canes blocked up but the cane the potter wasp blocked up, is identical to my eye to the ones the bees have closed up.  This is the first visit from the wasp that I have noticed so I presume this is her first nest in the hotel, but perhaps not the last.  The wasps are carnivorous and supply their nests with grubs and caterpillars.

So it looks like I may have a pest disposal and pollinating service working side by side!


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Off the well trodden paths

When I visited Minerve in the Languedoc-Roussillon last week we parked in the visitors car park outside the village which must be reached on foot.  The car park was well designed and the light stream of visitors parked and followed a well-trodden path for their initial view of the beautiful village.  Afterwards they followed the paths to the village pausing to take in the scenery and the atmosphere.

Osmia bee on Cistus

Osmia bee on Cistus

Alongside the path the wild flowers were growing in abundance and the wild bees were out in their numbers.  I think this is a Cistus incanus which is a Mediterranean plant so I’m not sure whether it has arrived here by itself or it is indeed native to this area of southern France.  It is so beautiful and provides the perfect foil for my bee which I think is the same Osmia cornuta which is nesting in my bee hotel in the garden.

Osmia collecting pollen

Osmia collecting pollen

The Osmia do not collect pollen on their legs.  The female Osmia have a brush of pollen-collecting hairs on the underside of their abdomen.

I was engrossed in my bees when I heard a voice from a party returning to the car park and explaining to a child that “The lady was taking pictures of the flowers”.  The child was obviously more interested in what I was doing than admiring the view and I’m sure would have been fascinated with all the bees.  It made me wonder how many people tread the well-trodden path and do not look any further.

After we left Minerve we followed a descending road but stopped at a marked view point.  The view was truly remarkable but when we looked a little further we found an abundance of wild flowers.

Wild thyme

Wild thyme

The bees have plenty of forage at this time of year and were visiting the wild thyme.

Yellow orchid

Yellow orchid

Just off the path were yellow orchids,  Ophrys lutea, I think.

Another yellow orchid.

Another yellow orchid.

Close by was another which I think is the Spider orchid Ophrys aranifera, which doesn’t look to much like a spider to me.

Spotted orchid

Spotted orchid

I’m not even going to try naming this one as orchids are extremely difficult to identify.  Lady Orchid, Orchis purpurea (Please see Susan’s comments beneath.)

Lathyrus cicera

Lathyrus cicera

This beauty was pushing up here and there, not as large or rambling as the sweet peas but just as attractive.

A peach tree had already set fruit testifying to the mild climate of the area.  An almond tree was also in fruit with some of last years fruit still on the ground and edible.

Still, like good tourists we pressed on to our next stop and took in the views until the bees called again.

Honey bee

Honey bee

The cow parsley was attracting lots of bees and other insects.

Nomada sp.

Nomada sp.

This is a cuckoo bee, I cannot be more precise for the species.  These bees do not build their own nests but lay their eggs in the nests of other bees.  Their young will be nourished on the pollen and nectar set aside by other bees, quite like mining bees of the genus Andrena.

I was lured back to the straight and narrow by the promise of an ice cream in the village, so I left the bees and my photographing.  It made me wonder though, how often we follow the well trodden paths and how much we miss in doing so.

Returning home on the motorway we stopped just outside Agen.  The weather was fine and we really needed to stretch our legs.  It was the usual petrol station/restaurant set-up but they seemed to have gone a little bit further than many in France and provided more places to sit and a pleasant play area for the children.  Just across from the play area we found – yes, more orchids.

Purple orchid

Purple orchid

(See comments) Green-winged Orchid Anacamptis morio

Unkown bud

And this beauty that is just starting to flower. (Tongued orchid, Serapias lingua – see comments)

We don’t have to wait for a signpost or a well trodden path to find something of beauty.