a french garden


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What’s happened to the sunflowers?

Earlier this summer when I started putting the supers onto two of my hives, our beekeeper friend, Michel, told me that once the sunflowers opened across the road from us, the honey bees would fill one super in just one week.  Well, the sunflowers have certainly opened across the little road to our hamlet, only a few metres away from our four hives.

Looking at the hives through the sunflower fiield

Looking at the hives through the sunflower field

So, during the warm mornings, Amelia and I eagerly went in search of the bees across the road.

Searching for honey bees in the field of sunflower

Searching for honey bees in the field of sunflower

Amelia walked right through the field but only found a few bumble bees and there were very few honey bees on the sunflowers.

What I have now discovered is that Michel was right and the honey bees did indeed collect loads of pollen and nectar from the sunflowers – however, the emphasis is on the past tense.

The disc florets in the centre of sunflowers have both male and female parts and each female part has a single ovary that develops into a seed.  It appears that the new varieties of seeds planted near us now are self fertilising type, thus eliminating the need for bees to fertilise the plant.  More importantly, these new varieties have a much longer neck to the style and as the nectaries are situated just above the ovaries, this makes it difficult for the honey bees to collect the nectar. So, although the sunflower field does look very pretty across our land, it does very little good for our bees.

On my visit next day, however, I did see a much pollen smothered bee homing in towards a sunflower.

Bee on sunflower

Bee on sunflower

She did look so pretty and I was fascinated to watch her rolling the little reddish ball of pollen on her hind legs.  I managed to take a short video clip of her.  If you would like to see it, please click here.

Nevertheless, we are lucky that there are a variety of flowers around us, as the supers  we put on two of our hives look well on the way to being filled.

So after all there was a happy ending despite the lack of nectar for our honey bees. – Kourosh

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Special Mission

Last Saturday night I went on a special mission.  Being me, I was very excited about it.  But to begin at the beginning it had all started when I was contacted by the Observatoire des Vers Luisants by email in early July asking me if I had seen any glow worms in my garden this year because I had let them know that I had seen at least one in the summer of 2012.

As it so happened my husband had spotted one in the garden the day before we received the email.  I was able to reply that we had already had a sighting in the garden.  There are two possible insects that could emit light in the evening, the fireflies or the glow worms.  What we have seen are glow worms.

1-Glow worm 1

This is a photograph taken in 2012 from a post “It is a matter of perspective”.  I did not think to take a photograph this year.

When I responded to the enquiry that we had a sighting in the garden, I also indicated that I would be prepared for any “Special Mission” that might be forthcoming.

Last Friday I was contacted by telephone and asked if I would be able to follow a given route from the house between the 24 and 26 July after sunset.  This is the first time I have taken part in one of these “Citizen Science” projects and I was delighted to agree.

I duly received my map which showed me a route from the house towards the village for about a kilometre.  I was very pleased with the route because it was exactly where we had seen the glow worms in previous years.  The 24 th. was a fine summer evening and we decided to make a supplementary search in the garden before starting on the given route.   I am not used to wandering in the garden at night with no light so I managed to fall over the wires holding up the vine posts – I hadn’t expected this mission to be so dangerous!

Whether by coincidence or not, that night the street lighting in our little hamlet was not switched on. Despite walking the route slowly, one behind the other, we did not spot any glow worms.  Even the glow worm we had seen in the garden was not there.  We were very surprised but posted our zero count as every result is important especially a negative one.  We have had an extremely dry period and the edges of the road had been closely cropped in June leaving hardly any vegetation.  I do not know whether this would make a difference but I added it to the comment section of my return.

Do you see fireflies or glow worms in your gardens?


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Confusion in the bee hotel

Bee hotel

I keep my bee hotels in full sun so that this gives me maximum light for photographing the antics of the visitors and the warm site appears to be appreciated by the bees.  This has worked well until this summer when the high temperatures and hot sun have kept me from watching as much as I would have liked to.

Bee hotel close

Look what has happened when I have not been watching!  I have never heard of a bee building a nest out of straw and I could not imagine any small insect flying in with so much straw.  My husband suggested it might be a very small bird, he was joking, but it did look more like a bird building a nest than a bee.

Pollen

Then there was the heaps of pollen under the hotel.  It looked as if something might be turfing out the contents of a previously built nest.

Black wasp on bee hotel

As today was cooler (under 30 degrees Centigrade, just) I had to see if I could see what was happening.  I was rewarded by seeing, not a bee but an elegant wasp-shaped “thing” (I.D. anyone?).

I could see by looking at it that bad times loomed ahead.  Perhaps impending destruction of my bees by this strange creature.  However, I wanted to make sure that this was the straw importer and I wanted to see for myself how she could bring the straw.

Black wasp with caterpillar

My patience was rewarded and I saw her bring back some straw but it was not until I looked at the photographs that I realised she was holding something else in addition.

Black wasp with caterpillar 2

Not only had she managed to bring back the straw but she was also carrying a hapless caterpillar.

Black wasp with caterpillar 3

At this point my reasoning did a U-turn.  Sorry caterpillar, and all that, but if you are going to be the food for the wasp larvae it means that my bees are safe.  I don’t mind if your eggs are tucked up inside your strange straw bed, as long as your larvae are not eating my bee larvae.

Heriades in Osmia hole

So that just leaves the pollen mystery.  But what is this cute little bee doing inside a cane that was sealed by an Osmia this spring and on target to hatch out next spring?  It looks like a Heriades to me and these little bees seem to make free and easy with other bees provisions (see “Je t’accuse“) but I may be mistaken.

And I was mistaken about the sombre, black wasp that I thought was a parasite.  Instead she looks like a gardeners friend.  She can have as many caterpillars from the garden as she likes (sorry, butterflies, everybody has different priorities) and is very welcome in the bee hotels.

So before you think about swatting anything in the garden, pause and consider – you may be mistaken.

Saturday 25 July 2015, I’d just like to add a postscript for anyone who is interested.  The wasp has been identified by Susan Walter of Days on the Claise (http://daysontheclaise.blogspot.fr/ ) as an Isodontia mexicana (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isodontia_mexicana).

 


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Underground Asian hornet nest – “Nid de frelons asiatique souterrain”

I apologize that this post is less about garden more about bees and it definitely carries a warning as it is not for the faint hearted.

During the past few days our precious honey bees have been attacked by asian hornets – frelons asiatiques.  I noticed it first when I saw a huge agitation around the hives.

Cornucopia with my bees landing strip

Cornucopia with my bees landing strip

Amelia stood guard yesterday and the day before with a butterfly net and on each occasions trapped and destroyed four or five asian hornets, some  were trying to enter the hive.  Altogether she must have caught a dozen hornets over the past few days.  It is worth mentioning that despite their size, the asian hornet is not particularly aggressive towards humans and mainly is interested in catching bees near the hive, cutting their head and taking the body to feed their larvae.  Sometimes they enter the hive and take bee larvae for the same purpose. A full colony of asian hornets in season can considerably weaken and even destroy a bee hive.

Normally the asian hornets are a problem in this region during August.  But yesterday I was working along what we have named our forest walk next to the river Seudre.  I noticed a couple of asian hornets landing on the steps I had created.  The steps are made from hollow breeze blocks.

Steps in the forest walk

Steps in the forest walk

There was no mistake that they were Asian hornets entering and leaving an underground cavity.Asian hornet going into underground nest

Asian hornet going into underground nest

Searching the internet there is a considerable amount of information on the asian hornets in France and their nests in trees.  I found no information on any underground nest.  However, what I am beginning to believe  is that the hornets do make a small nest underground at the beginning of summer where new hornets are raised, presumably as future queens.  Later each can develop a new larger colony in trees.  Britain has been so far spared by this new menace to bees, as was France before 2004.  The  asian hornets are moving north and there might not be too long before they also enter Britain.

Operation destruction had to be put in place when night fell and hopefully all the hornets had returned to the nest.  This consisted of first placing straw and sticks on the site and setting fire to it.

Kitted in my bee suit and armed with the propane burner used normally for destroying weeds, I went into battle.

Burning the nest of asian hornets

Burning the nest of asian hornets

Then we turned the stepping stones over to find the nest and then placed more straw on it and in the hope of burning the area where they nested.

Asian hornet nest inside a breeze block

Asian hornet nest inside a breeze block

The hornets caring for the larvae were there but already overcome by the smoke and heat of the fire.

Asian hornet nest underground with the hornets

Asian hornet nest underground with the hornets

 

The night had fallen and it was already ten o’clock, but my next move was to install hornet guards at the entrance of each of the hives, whilst the hives were quiet.  The guards were there, but they were quite gentle.

This morning I went to check that the hornet guards were not too much hindering the bees leaving and entering the hives with pollen.

Cornucopia with hornet guard

Cornucopia with hornet guard

All appeared well and I could see lots of yellow pollen brought in from the fields of sunflower across the road.

I checked and removed the partially burnt out hornet nest and saw the clear papery nest with its pointed back where it was attached to the breeze block.

Underground nest of asian hornets - Frelon asiatique

Underground nest of asian hornets – Frelon asiatique

The steps to our forest walk has to be rebuilt.

The Forest walk afte destruction of the steps

But should I use breeze blocks again?  That is a question that requires some thought.  Meanwhile, I am hoping that our bees have been given some respite from the asian hornets.

– Kourosh

 


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It’s been hot!

Laurier rose

I have found the high temperatures of this summer difficult in the garden but there are some things that do well in the heat,  like this white oleander outside the house.  It was a mild winter and it was not frozen so it is looking its best ever.  I would have never have planted it if I had known that it really needs to be protected in the winter here.  However, I coddled it and wrapped it while it was little.  Now if it freezes I will just cut of the damaged parts and trust that it will survive.

Hydrangea

The Hydrangea has lapped up the sun and temperatures in the high 30’s centigrade (we managed to get to 40 degrees centigrade one day).

Baby Hydrangea

Even its little cuttings that are going into their second summer in a rough, dry spot beside a wall are surviving well.

Hydrangea Savill gardens

Not all the plants get such a tough treatment.  I bought this Hydrangea, called “Savill Garden”, at Savill Gardens last October when they still had a lovely show of Hydrangeas.  It is in my new “stick border” where I have to mark the new plants with a stick to make sure they don’t get lost in the weeds and I am watering these until they get established.

Canna

The Canna has done a grand job in providing a screen where trees have either fallen down or been removed along my “stick border”.

Choisia Aztec pearl

My lovely Choisia “Aztec Pearl” was moved last autumn to provide hedging but was not such a good choice as the Canna.  It may well succumb to heat stroke despite my improvised parasol.

Lupin

I only managed to raise five plants out of a whole packet of lupin seed I started inside in the autumn.  They are supposed to flower in the first year but I’ll be lucky if they survive to next year.

Hibiscus tronum

A happier outcome of my seed sowing are these Hibiscus tronium.  I saw these during my visit to the Savill Garden last October.  They are also called “Flower of an Hour” as the flowers do not last longer than a day.  They were growing and flowering in a shady part of the garden in October although they are supposed to like hot, sunny spots.  These are in a pot in full sun but I have others in the ground and I am looking forward to seeing where they will grow over here.

Stick garden

At least the middle part of the “stick garden” is starting to take shape.

Willows

It now completes the circle started by the willows (Salix alba Chermesima) I planted in January of 2014.

Thyme

The thyme and ..Chaomille

the chamomile planted under the willows have provided a good ground cover.

First squash

Our first butternut squash has appeared as have the tomatoes and courgettes.

bee in pumpkin

The squash and courgettes provide good early morning entertainment watching the bees hunt for the nectar at the base of their flowers then struggling out covered with the pollen.

Gourd 2

My husband planted some decorative gourd seed this year and I am looking forward to seeing the different shapes.  He also bought a half price packet of wild flower seed at the supermarket check out – lured by the reduction and the picture of Maya the Bee on the front of the packet.  The seeds have been planted at the bottom of the garden as a special patch for the bees.   We will see how it turns out.

Plum tree

The plum tree provides a deep shade and a pleasant resting place for the blackbirds and other birds who do not share the sweet plums 50:50 with us.  The chairs have to be upended and the table well washed before using it at this time of year.  A radio placed in the branches playing France Inter will keep the birds at bay long enough to set the table.

Baby wren

This is the time to watch the antics of the baby birds in the garden.  This baby wren was quite happy to stay in my gardening shoes on the patio.  It is embarrassing to post a photograph showing the state of my gardening shoes but it could have been worse – it might have been a photograph showing the state of my gardening trousers.


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Honey Bees

It was all the fault of our beekeeper friend Michel who had me hooked on bees.   Every time he visited our garden, he kept telling me: ‘There, you can place a hive…. and over there another….in fact you have room for several hives near the river and just outside the wooded area.’

Looking at the garden through the wooded area

Looking at the garden through the forest walk

In January we bought the first and then the second hive and Amelia lovingly painted them and decorated them.  In a normal year Michel would have given me a swarm, but this was not a normal year, and he had lost far too many of his own hives.  So after waiting and waiting – and I am not a patient man – I phoned all over the place to buy a swarm.  It proved difficult, but eventually I found someone who promised to sell me a swarm, but not before end of May.

Then the first  May Swarm arrived.  I was delighted, especially as it directly entered the little ruchette (six frames mini hive) that I had placed on top of the old chicken coop.  Later in May it was transferred to its permanent hive, now named Cornucopia, because of the horn of plenty that Amelia had painted on it.

Oh, well, I thought that plus the swarm I had ordered we should have enough on our hands.  But the bees had another thought in mind.  One sunny Friday afternoon in early June More bees arrived, this time in the little ruchette above our main house. The second swarm were named Violet, after the little violets that Amelia had painted on their destined hive.

A few days later I set off to my rendez-vous in the Périgueux region to collect the swarm that I had ordered.  Michel accompanied me as I must admit that being actually allergic to bee stings, I was somewhat nervous travelling back the 220 km (135 miles) with a car full of bees.

It was an idyllic spot for anyone and a lovely place to keep bees as well as his horses.  The rolling hills where surrounded by forests and farmlands.  He told us that he had in all over 100 hives.

Beekeeper's house near  Périgueux

Beekeeper’s house near Périgueux

We loaded the hive with the promised black bees (Perigueux Noir) and drove back full of excitement.  Back at home we opened the hive and let the bees discover their new home.  However, our excitement somewhat evaporated as we discovered that the bottom board was not fully aerated and in our hot summers that was something that we urgently needed to change.

We had to wait a couple of days for the ladies to settle down.  Then Amelia and I armed ourselves with the necessary tools and the smoker to investigate the hive properly.  The second problem was that lifting the top outer cover, we saw that the top inner cover consisted of a piece of very old plywood simply nailed to the brood box.  Carefully I removed the nails and lifted the entire hive to place it on a new fully aerated bottom board.  When we lifted the body of the hive, one of the frames dropped through the bottom of the hive.  We had no choice but smoke the poor creatures and open the hive.  Once we lifted the old frame, we saw that it was very old decayed Langstroth frame with the support ends rotted away.  We also noticed that there were no waxed sheets on the frames but the bees had started making their own honeycomb wax.  We did what we could, namely replacing the broken frame with a new waxed one and replaced the bottom board and the top inner as well as the outer cover which also was broken and looked like a museum piece.  So the moral of the story was never buy swarms from strangers, no matter how friendly they might appear.

Nevertheless, we named this hive of black bees as Poppy as we had noticed them returning to the hive with black pollen, distinctive of the poppies in the garden, as well as yellow pollen.

A week later Michel came over so that with his experienced eyes we could inspect the ruchette Violet and see if they could be transferred to their permanent home.  We also hoped to examine the new arrival from Périgueux, as it was clear to us that they were not a big colony.  Task one was accomplished very successfully and we even managed to see her majesty Queen Violet.

Queen Viollet

Queen Violet

She had already made a sizeable brood on at least two of the frames.

Violet - 1st Inspection

Violet – 1st Inspection

The inspection of the hive Poppy confirmed our original feelings that the colony was indeed quite small.  The good news was that they had started making a small area of brood cells on an old frame.  Nothing too exciting, but not having seen her queen we had to content ourselves with that.

Poppy first Inspection

Poppy first Inspection

We scheduled a second inspection a week later.  That proved much more exciting.

Firstly the hive Cornucopia was doing so well that we had to place a honey super on the hive.  Opening Poppy we saw that indeed there was a sizeable brood area on at least two frames.   Although we had placed a ruchette on the old chicken coop in case we had to replace Poppy, things looked more hopeful for Poppy.

Poppy second inspection

Poppy second inspection

Violet was doing admirably with classic areas of brood cells  on both sides of several frames.

Violet second inspection

Violet second inspection

She was duly transferred frame by frame from her ruchette to her beautiful new home

Violet transfer to hive

Violet transfer to hive

We returned towards the house when I pointed out to Michel that there were a fair number of bees again around another ruchette on the old chicken coop.  Michel walked closer for a closer look: ‘You have a new swarm’.’  There bees all over the tiles on the roof.

June Swarm

June Swarm

I had promised Amelia that I will not keep more than three hives, but at the end it was not me that chose the bees but they chose us.

We have chosen the name of Sunflower for the newly arrived swarm as the arrived the week that the sunflowers have opened up.

L to R: Sunflower; cornucopia; Poppy; and Violet

L to R: Sunflower; cornucopia; Poppy; and Violet

The forest of sweet chestnut trees are less than half a mile from our garden and they are still in flower; the sunflowers in the field across the road have not yet opened, but other sunflower fields have opened only just a few hundred yards away.  Around the numerous forest, not far, there are plenty of brambles in flower.  So, I hope that we can keep our bees happy and more importantly healthy, and I hope that they will like Amelia’s French garden as much as we do.

– Kourosh