May Swarm


The garden in May is beautiful.

Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)
Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)

The old favourites are back.

Madame Isaac Pereire and bumble bee

Madame Isaac Pereire is flowering and welcoming the bumble bees.

Male Bombus praetorum in Cotoneaster

I see more and more male spring bumble bees so I know that their season must be finishing.

But this May was special as my husband had decided at the end of last year that he wanted to keep honey bees.  Over the winter preparations began.  We were enrolled in the bee-keeping federation of the Charente Maritime and their classes for beginner bee-keepers to start in April.  In the winter two hives were bought and painted and decorated by me (at least they could look good in the garden!).

Painted hives

Then came the bad news in the spring that the bee population had been decimated over the winter.  Long-time bee-keepers had never experienced anything like this.  So many hives were opened in spring to find dead bees and unconsumed honey supplies.  The winter had not been severe or overly long.  With no natural causes apparent the bee-keepers suspected pesticides.  Was it a good thing to start keeping bees in an agricultural area growing rape and sunflower?

Our friend Michel lost 27 of his 30 hives but has set out to continue and build up, so my husband, encouraged by Michel, decided to continue but was unable to source any bees in April – more experienced bee-keepers had booked up available bees from companies before him.

In April, under Michel’s advice, a ruchette or small hive was placed with its entrance facing the south on top of an outbuilding.  Michel had provided a lure of old comb and the inside was rubbed with “Charme d’abeilles”.  I remained sceptical about their efforts although the ruchette was being visited by bees.

On the ninth of May I was weeding in the back garden and an amazing noise of buzzing bees alerted me to the incoming swarm.

4.37 sky view

I rushed inside and grabbed my camera.  At 4.37 p.m. the sky over the outbuilding was full of bees and they looked as if they were heading to the ruchette.

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The ruchette has only a small entrance hole and the bees appeared to be entering still at eight o’clock in the evening.

Not quite believing his new status as a beekeeper my husband went happily to bed to rise before sunrise and bee flying time to block their exit and transfer them to their new situation at the bottom of the garden.

10.5 Ruchette in place

Michel provided an almost compatible feeder and advised on feeding them a 50:50 sugar solution to settle them into their new home.  Moss had to be added to the water feeder to help them access the water safely.

Ruches and ruchette

Bee watching has taken up a lot of my husband’s time as he checks that they are still there and watches mesmerised as they fly in and out.  Such excitement when one returns with pollen on her legs!

Then a week later I notice scout bees patrolling our house roof as they have frequently done in previous years (see Uninvited Guests).  The now experienced swarm catcher leaps into action and a second polystyrene ruchette, similarly lured is placed on top of our dining room roof and accessed from the front garden.  The considerable interest in our tiled roof is transferred to the ruchette but the weather clouds over and no swarm results.  However, the bees have not renounced their interest before we had to leave on holiday to join my daughter and family.

10.5 Ruche

Michel has promised to look after the bees while we are away.   What shall we find when we return?  I think May can be a difficult time for gardeners and bee-keepers to leave home.


There’s an Emys orbicularis, in the garden

Emys orbicularis side

This afternoon my husband found a tortoise in the garden.

Emys orbicularis front (1)

I had never seen a tortoise like this before.  I could only guess that it was an exotic species someone had bought as a pet.  I had only heard of people keeping the Mediterranean type of tortoise that will breed in captivity here and it certainly was not one of those.  For a start it was much more vigorous and active than your average tortoise.

Emys orbicularis back

In addition, we could think of no-one nearby who would keep and exotic tortoise.  I felt that if I could identify it that it might be useful, as I was concerned that someone might be missing their pet.  Perhaps I could put an advertisement in the local pet shop?

I started searching on Google but I did not get very far so I decided to email my granddaughter, Daisy as she is into reptiles, amongst most other animals.  She replied immediately that it was a European pond turtle.  Disappointed, I replied that it could not be a turtle as it had feet with claws just like a tortoise.

However, I did do an internet search and, of course, I had to send her my apologies.  Emys orbicularis is the European pond turtle, cistude, tortue boueuse or tortue des marais in French.  European pond turtles do have clawed feet!  However, I have yet to meet anyone around here who has seen one or heard of them.  I was unaware of their existence.

Actually, it is not so surprising as they are very rare in the area and like most wildlife, getting rarer.  They live in marshy areas, ponds or slow moving water channels.  There are populations in the Charente Maritime but I can imagine that they would be very difficult to see on the banks of a river or in in wetlands.  The heavy rain we have experienced of late had perhaps swept it from the known colonies although the Seudre, which runs at the bottom of the garden, is known to possess them.  The poor beast was only enjoying a sunbath in the back garden border when it was pounced on.

Once we had realised what it was and that far from being a lost pet, that it is a protected species, we decided to put it back in the river.

Emys orbicularis in back garden

He (from the length of his tail and his concave underside, I deduced it was a male) did not seem in a rush to get into the water and we had to point him in the right direction as we did not want him to find his way onto the road.

Emys orbicularis to the water

But as soon as he saw the river he took to it like a turtle to water!

All gone

He was soon gone!

A ring

His head did break the surface again to look back, then disappeared under again leaving only the ripples.

I wonder if he liked the garden?  Will he come back?  Will I spend a long time staring into the river instead of getting on with the gardening?

The big release was filmed on this short video (15 secs)