a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France

The bees and Sweet Chestnuts



Last week I was very worried about the bees.  We are new to beekeeping and we visit the girls everyday (often more than once) just to see how they are getting on as you can learn a lot by just watching them.

However, I noticed a strange odour around the beehives and Kourosh confirmed that he could smell it too.  When it lasted more than a day or too I began to recall bee diseases that had unpleasant odours attached to them.  However, the bees were doing so well and the odour, although unusual, was not unpleasant.  In fact, it smelt familiar but I could not place it.

Chestnut flowers overhead

It was not until we went for a walk into the woods that I traced the source of the perfume (?).  We had been watching the Sweet Chestnuts (Castanea sativa) throw out the unripe catkins and knew that the flowering was imminent but we had never suspected that the bees could bring so much pollen back that we would be able to smell it in front of the hives.

Chestnut flower stamens

The male flowers produce long stamens and the quantity of pollen produced by the tree is enormous.  One method of testing to see what type of honey that the bees produce is to examine the pollen grains trapped inside the honey.  However, the quantity of pollen produced by the sweet chestnut can complicate the analysis and I have read that some honeys in France which are 100% Latifolia (the commercially grown lavender for perfume, essential  oils etc.) and, therefore, monofloral could containe 80% of sweet chestnut pollen!

Stand of Chestnut trees

We are lucky to be surrounded by woods containing Sweet Chestnut trees so the bees are happy just now and we are happy to collect the chestnuts in the autumn.

Chestnut flowers and stamens

The female flowers which are tiny and insignificant in comparison to the stamens of the male flower.  After receiving comments provoked by the Facebook page of the BBKA I need to clarify where the nectaries of the Sweet Chestnut trees are situated.  I have found a paper in which one of the main criteria was to study the morphology of Sweet Chestnut flowers. ( Flower morphology of Castanea sativa Mill From Bulgaria and characteristics of unifloral chestnut honey ( Comptes rendus de l’Académie bulgare des sciences: sciences mathématiques et naturelles · January 2013.Juliana Atanassova, Spassimir Tonkov (Submitted by Academician V. Golemansky on April 19, 2013))  This paper quoted, as a reference, Farkas A., E. Zajacz.  ́ Eur. J. Plant Sci. Biotech., 1, 2007, No 2, 125–148. but I was unable to find this on the internet but it appears another quirk of the sweet chestnut that this mainly wind pollinated tree produces nectar from nectaries situated on the male flowers which also produce pollen, although at different times to avoid cross-pollination.



Close up Chestnut flowers

Looking closer at the flowers you can see the formation of the prickly green cover that protects the mature chestnuts.

Chestnut flowers

The form of the female flowers remind me of the hazel nut flowers but perhaps the hazel flowers are more stunning with their surprisingly red colour.

Honey bee on Bramble Rubus fruticosus

What did intrigue me was that in spite of the abundance of the chestnut nectar and pollen the bees were still visiting the brambles (Rubus fruticosus) that were growing in the undergrowth beneath the trees .  This will alter the flavour and constituency of any honey produced if the bees mix the nectar of different plants and I am sure ours will.

Megachile on Bramble

It was not only the honey bees.

Butterfly on bramble

But other pollinators were attracted to the brambles.

Honey bee on old man's beard Clematis vitalba

I saw honey bees on the Old Man’s Beard (Clematis vitalba) despite the feast of plenty overhead.  An abundant source of nectar and pollen does not stop the bees visiting the other sources.

daucus carota Queen Anne's Lace

Checking out for bees and nectar sources under the trees I noticed this lovely Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) or Queen Anne’s Lace with its sole red floweret in the centre of the bloom.  This has nothing to do with Sweet Chestnuts and bees but I just thought it was so lovely.

Bees in super

So the odour has disappeared from the hives and it will be something we will expect to reappear next year when the Sweet Chestnut trees flower.  Perhaps we will be less nervous and more confident then.  Until then Kourosh has fitted all the supers with clear plastic covers so that we can have a peek at the bees filling up the frames without disturbing them.

Author: afrenchgarden

Born in Scotland I have lived in England, Iran, USA and Greece. The house and land was bought twelve years ago in fulfilment of the dream of living in France that my Francophile husband nurtured. We had spent frequent holidays in France touring the more northerly parts and enjoying the food, scenery, architecture and of course gardens. However, we felt that to retire in France and enjoy a more clement climate than we currently had in Aberdeen we would need to find somewhere south of the river Loire but not too south to make returning to visit the UK onerous. The year 2000 saw us buying our house and setting it up to receive us and the family on holidays. The garden was more a field and we were helped by my son to remove the fencing that had separated the previous owners’ goats, sheep and chickens. We did inherit some lovely old trees and decided to plant more fruit trees that would survive and mature with the minimum of care until we took up permanent residence. The move took place in 2006 and the love hate relation with the “garden” started. There was so much to do in the house that there was little energy left for the hard tasks in the garden. It was very much a slow process and a steep learning curve. Expenditures have been kept to a minimum. The majority of the plants have been cuttings and I try to gather seeds wherever I can. The fruit trees have all been bought but we have tender hearts and cannot resist the little unloved shrub at a discount price and take it as a matter of honour to nurse it back to health. This year I have launched my Blog hoping to reach out to other gardeners in other countries. My aim is to make a garden for people to enjoy, providing shady and sunny spots with plants that enjoy living in this area with its limestone based subsoil and low rainfall in a warm summer. Exchanging ideas and exploring mutual problems will enrich my experience trying to form my French garden.

21 thoughts on “The bees and Sweet Chestnuts

  1. It is so interesting to share your learning process. You were good not to panic but think through the possibilities. Your bees are fortunate to have such attentive owners.


  2. I once though I was smelling disease when it was more likely the pollen from the hawthorns. Always more to learn from the bees!


  3. Nice post. Thanks for my continued education in beekeeping.


  4. A fascinating post. It might just be my imagination but it seems to me the Sweet Chestnuts here are flowering like crazy, even more than previous years. I love chestnut honey.


    • I think two wet winter/springs have made a tremendous difference to our vegetation around here. For instance, we now have white clover in our grass – I have never seen that before. There is lots oaf birds’ foot trefoil and large patches of red clover around – both plants I used to have to look for. Amelia


  5. I miss the comforting scent of the hives. How wonderful to track your bees down to the Sweet Chestnuts.


    • I’ll pay more attention now to the scent around the hives now that I realise it can indicate what pollen they are bringing back. I always wonder where they go but we will never know. Amelia


      • By the way I posted a link to your blog on the BBKA Facebook page, as people were talking about sweet chestnut. A beekeeper called Andy Willis replied with some useful info on how the tree’s pollination works which might be of interest to you:

        “the sweet chestnut male flowers produce both nectar and pollen and the female flowers produce neither. The sweet chestnut has a complicated sex life and is in fact wind pollinated. The bees help liberate the pollen when working the male flowers which then blows onto another tree. The male and female flowers on one tree mature at different times so reducing self pollination.”

        And also:

        “The female flowers mature after the male flowers have finished usually, there is a small overlap of about a day or so on the most fertile trees. Not all trees are fertile and produce viable pollen, some of the best quality nut producing trees produce sterile male flowers with no pollen at all. These need a known fertile male flowering tree within 40 metres that flowers later for a good crop of nuts to set.

        Martin Crawford ( from the Agroforestry Research Trust ) has published a booklet all about sweet chestnuts, their production and culture. ISBN 1-874275-26-2. In it he describes pollination and the four classifications regarding the male flowers. An individual tree will fall into one of the four classifications:

        A-stamen ( sterile with no pollen ) brachy-stamen ( stamen threads very small, trees practically sterile), meso-stamen ( stamen threads 3-5 mm long, little pollen and practically sterile), long-stamen ( stamen threads 5-7 mm long, abundant pollen ( but not always very fertile).

        It has to be remembered that the sweet chestnut is not a native to these lands, but originated in the southern Mediterranean. The hotter dryer air allows for better wind pollination there. ( the female flowers are most receptive and fertile in high temperatures, with optimum pollen germination in temperatures of 27-30 centigrade). The pollen is sticky and doesn’t disperse so well, in the usually moist cool UK, which is why good sets of nuts are not always produced here.”

        Have you actually seen the bees gathering nectar from the female flowers, as Andy said they don’t produce any nectar so the bees don’t visit them?

        Liked by 2 people

        • Wow that’s a lot of information! We should be in for a good chestnut crop this year according to this info. Everywhere I have read it says that although the sweet chestnut is wind pollinated it, paradoxically, also produces nectar. Indeed, chestnut honey is well appreciated and I cannot see how honey can be produced without nectar. (Some honey can be produced from trees with heavy aphid infections by collecting the exudates but this is not the case of chestnut honey.) Most of the flowers were too high for me to see the bees on them but I am certain the sweet chestnuts flowers produce nectar. Amelia


  6. The clear plastic covers were clever. I think it would be great fun to watch them in their hive.
    I wonder if bees take pollen from poisonous plants and what happens to the honey when they do. I wonder if it could become toxic.


  7. The smell of sweet chestnut is a very particular one and I am not sure I really like it but it signifies, for me, warm summer evenings.
    That’s a nice picture of the leafcutter!


    • Thank you. Odours are often linked with other sensations and factors, like your warm summer evenings. If it is linked to a good feeling it is more likely to be well considered. I think now I will link the smell of sweet chestnuts flowering to honey and happy bees. Amelia


  8. Pingback: The heat goes on | a french garden

  9. I like this weblog so much, saved to favorites. “Respect for the fragility and importance of an individual life is still the mark of an educated man.” by Norman Cousins.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s