a french garden


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Honey, honey

It was first Violette and then pissenlit that we lost in May after they swarmed.  In each case the story was the same.  The colonies came out of winter very strong, but a week or so after they swarmed, the new queens did not manage to develop the colonies well.

I saw a bundle of bees on the grass in front of the hive

Bees around the queen on the ground

On close inspection Amelia and I saw the queen right in the middle, with the bees protecting her.

Bees around the queen

The story seems to have been similar with other beekeepers.  I talked to another beekeeper near us with 44 hives and she had lost 11 colonies after they swarmed.

So, despite the fact that in May and June we collected 10 swarms and gave them all away, we started the summer in our own apiary with only 3 hives.  Unfortunately when August came, the bees were once again attacked by the Asian hornets and I had to instal the modified muzzles with larger grills (1cm x 1cm) in front the hives  to protect them.  The hornets still come and take a few bees, but at least the rest are not so stressed.

our hives summer 2017

The acacias flowered and then the chestnut trees all around our house.  They were followed with the sunflowers.  Just a short distance away I could look through the woods and see the fields of sunflower

view around the corner looking at sunflower field

A short walk and there laid before us the yellow field

Sunflower field 2017

We did check the individual flower heads, and true enough, our bees were busy.

Sunflower 5 bees

At  6.45 am on 21st August Amelia and I removed the frames from the supers of all three hives and placed each of them in a separate plastic box and took them to my friend, Michel’s house for extraction.    Michel was standing in the garden, waiting for us.

The first stage was taking each frame and removing the wax before placing them in the centrifuge.  It was, however, immediately obvious that we had two distinct colour of honey; the darker one containing more chestnut honey was even more viscous.  So we tried to keep the darker honey separate.Honey getting ready for centrifuge

Once the wax was removed we saw beautiful glistening honey.

honey comb ready for centrifuge

Soon after placing the frames in the centrifuge and starting the motor, the honey started to flow.

Honey from the centrifuge

It is something truly amazing about honey.  Depending on the flowers near us, we get different colour as well as different flavour of honey each season.  Even the honey of our friend Michel who lives only a kilometre away  is distinctly different from ours.

Last year we had really yellow honey that obviously a large proportion of which came from the sunflowers.  Only two or three jars are left from last year.  We gave a lot away and now I wish we had kept  more for ourselves as the flavours of the individual honeys are so different and the yellow honey would bring sunshine into the winter days.

Last year’s honey is on the left of the picture below, with this years dark and light honey in jars.  The second jar from left is our spring 2017 honey, which comes mostly from the spring flowers and also the rape seeds.

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At the moment my favourite desert is the natural yogurt that Amelia serves with our own raspberries and a drizzle of this year’s honey.  Delicious!

Yogurt desert with rasberries and honey

So another season has finished and a new season for the bees has started.  We will do everything we can to protect our bees this winter and hope that the winter will also be mild and mellow for  all of you.

– Kourosh

 

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The loss of a beehive.

On 7th May, we lost our brave Violette.

For those of you that might be interested to know, in April I wrote that our favourite hive, Violette, swarmed.  The swarm arrived happily in a nuke that we had placed on the roof of the old chicken coop and subsequently we transferred her to the end of the garden where we keep our hives.

Violette BeehiveTwo weeks later we noticed a small bundle of bees on the ground, in front of Violette.  We suspected that the new queen was among them as I had read that sometimes on return from her nuptial flight she is so tired and heavy that she cannot fly well.

Queen bee outside the hive with her courtSo I decided to gently pry the bees to see what I could find.  “There she is!”, Amelia noticed.

Queen bee outside her hiveI lifted the queen gently and placed her in front of the hive entrance.  She walked in and soon the rest of the bees followed her inside.  Unfortunately, this happened three times, over two days.  Each time she appeared to have tumbled out of the hive.  Something strange was definitely happening.

So a couple of days later, on Sunday 7th May, we prepared the smoker to open up Violette.  There was no need to use the smoker, as the hive was completely empty.  No bees to be found, dead or alive.

I spoke with a couple of very experienced beekeepers who told me that they too have had hives completely empty.  They believe that whilst outside the hive they must have been poisoned and subsequently died.   We found three closed queen cells in Violette and opened them to see fully formed queens, abandoned by the bees.  There was no visible sign of disease on the bees before.  We found it strange that a week earlier the hive was full of bees and then nothing.  No bees!

The swarm that we had collected from Violette in a six frame nuke, however, was so busy that for a couple of nights we saw some bees staying outside the hive at night.  It appeared that there was no room in the inn.

Nuke with too many beesAs we had the smoker ready we opened up the nuke, and found out that she had very large brood on both sides of five frame, and a lot of bees moving around.  We quickly transferred to a full ten frame hive, plus a super.  She is now called Iris.

Iris Bee hiveViolette’s frames were all destroyed in case of any illness, or transfer of any possible poison.

But nature is what it it is and we have to accept that sometimes we win and sometimes we lose.

The two pairs of blackbirds in the back garden appear to have each raised two chicks and the fledglings are ravenous.

Black bird with fledglingsThe large poppy seeds that I planted at the edge of the vegetable garden last year and they did not grow then, are now in flower and are loved by the bumblebees as well as our honey bees (and of course by us!)

PoppiesThe phacelia that self-seeded from last year’s planting is also well loved by bumblebees and the honey bees.

IMG_0180So as consolation, I made a cup of coffee for Amelia with a little chocolate bunny.  “But who is sitting in my chair”, she cried!

IMG_0128The little tree frog, our daily visitor, was nonplussed by our intrusion.

Tree frog

Kourosh


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Saints de Glace

At 7:30 am today 27th April 2017, the temperatures dropped to minus 4.5 degrees C (24 degrees F).  We see around us many vineyards devastated by the frost.  The vines that had just flowered were frozen.

Frozen vinesThe last few weeks of really warm weather (up to 27 degrees C), have advanced the vines 12 to 15 days, compared with previous years, making them more vulnerable to the sudden frost.

The morning papers report that in our department of Charente approximately 25,000 hectares of vines have been damaged – in some areas up 80% of the vine flowers have been destroyed.

There is very little the farmers can do to protect their crop against low temperatures. However, from very early morning some farmers tried setting fire to straw bales near their vines to raise the nearby air temperature.  Others called in helicopters to fly low over the vines, to create turbulence and avoid cold air staying low on the ground.  This managed to increase the temperature by up to 2 degrees.  But sadly even these efforts  were not sufficient to avoid the extensive damage.  

The French farmers as in other parts of Europe believe strongly in the Saints de Glace. The three important are:  St Mamert (11 May), St Pancrace (12 May) and St Servais (13 May).  They say in France: “Beware, the first of the ice saints, often you will see its trace.  Before Saint-Servais, no summer; after Saint-Servais, no more frost.”  There are even those who recommend caution planting fragile plants outdoor until 25th May (St Urban) as a frost can occur up to then.  They say: “Quand la saint Urbain est passée, le vigneron est rassuré.”  When St Urban is passed, the vineyard owners are assured.

Our pretty garden was also touched by the sudden frost.  The potato crop is partially frozen and the lovely lagerstroemia that was so kindly given to us last autumn by Michel and his wife is frozen.

Frozen lagerstoemia

Our hydrangea is well protected against a stone wall, but some of its leaves are badly damaged.

Frozen hydrangea

A few other more fragile flowers and plants have also suffered, but my heart goes to the farmers that for the last twelve months have laboured really hard in their vineyards and have overnight lost so much.

Kourosh


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Honey bees Update April 2017

We were so pleased that our four hives came well out of the winter.  On warmer days throughout the winter the bees were active, even bringing in pollen.  As Brother Adam had suggested we had placed a super under the hives to lift them a little above the damp earth and provide a layer of still air for insulation.

Our 4 hives in FebruaryDuring the last week of February we inspected the hives before going on a holiday.  All four hives were going quite strong.  As suspected Violette was the strongest and she had already a sealed queen cell.  We had learnt from our mistake on Cornucopia last year at about the same time when we had left the queen cell.  In late February it is quite possible for the bees to get the swarm fever and make a new queen.  But in so early season, there are almost no male bees to fertilise a new queen.  That is what happened to Cornucopia last year, when we had five frames of brood in late February and none in mid March.

So this year as soon as I saw a queen cell in February, we destroyed it and removed one frame of honey and replaced it with a fresh waxed frame.

On 19th March after our holidays, we opened up Violette again and saw that they had drawn the fresh wax and had already made healthy brood on it.  The hive was full of bees.  But they had again made a few queen cells.  This time we felt it is the right moment to divide her.  We removed two frames of brood with the queen cells and placed them in a nuke and added fresh waxed frames and shook some more nurse bees into the nuke. We added fresh frames to Violette and then closed both hives.  The closed nuke was placed in our cellar for two nights and then returned to the apiary.  By then the nurse bees had forgotten their old home.  In any case the nurse bees would not abandon their existing brood.

Bees division in a nukeWe have, since then kept our fingers crossed and eventually on 4th April we saw for the first time that the bees in the nuke were bringing pollen.  Notice two bees with different colour of pollen.  That we took as a good sign that hopefully there is a queen laying eggs.

First pollen in a nukeThe fields around us, especially across the road are all yellow with rapeseed in flower. The bees are quite active collecting both pollen and nectar; and so are the butterflies.

IMG_0071-001You can just about notice the blue of our hives near the flowering apple tree.

Field of Rape acroos our landI am not particularly keen in collecting rapeseed honey as last year it crystallized quickly and we could not extract it and had to cut up the frames and use as honeycomb.  This year we placed supers on the hives with just a very small amount of wax, not so much for making honeycomb, but more for reducing the risk of swarming.

But, as every beekeeper learns quickly, swarming is something hormonal and no amount of effort on our part totally removes the risk of a hive swarming.

On 10th April, I saw a lot of bees in front of Violette.  Was that because with 27degree temperature, they were too hot, or was this a beard before swarming?

Bees forming a beard before swarmingIn any case I placed an umbrella over her to keep the ladies cool.

Violette hive under the umbrellaDespite adding an empty frame in February, dividing her in March and putting on a super Violette swarmed.  She chose the cotoneaster just a metre or so away from her hive.  As you can see in this short video, the swarm was very low above the ground and I had to cut all the small brunches to get close to them.  The purple flowers are honesty.

Bees swarming on the cotoneaster 1Normally I can shake a swarm on a branch into a plastic bucket and literally pour them into a nuke.  This time I had to brush them gently to get the bees clustered around the trunk of the cotoneaster.

Bees swarming on the cotoneaster 2It appeared to go alright.  But do the ladies have a mind of their own? Yes!  Half hour later they just marched out on the cotoneaster as before.

Unsuccessful capture of the swarmSo I had to make another call to our beekeeper friend, Michel for advice.  All he said on the phone was “J’arrive”.  As he lives about a kilometre away he came quickly.  Amelia, Michel and I were standing near the old chicken coop  and discussing the problem and the best way of collecting the swarm from Violette, when Amelia shouted: “listen to the noise!”  The sky above our head was almost black with bees.  I ran to the bottom of garden to see if it was the swarm on the cotoneaster or a new swarm.  There were no bees on the cotoneaster.  Violette had arrived directly into the nuke that we had placed above the chicken coop.  You can see in this short video the swarm arriving.  Soon they were all over the nuke and it took an hour or more for all of them to enter the nuke.

Bees arriving in the nuke 2That night, I gave them a little syrup and set the alarm to wake us up early next morning to take them down to the bottom of the garden.

The morning was cool and the bees were calm.  The full moon was beautiful and I could not resist a quick picture above our trees.

11 April early morningThe next two days we had two more swarms that arrived near our hives.  One was on the fence and one the quince tree.  The latter required standing on the step ladder to collect them.  Both we gave to Michel.

Collecting swarm near the hivesThe Violette’s swarm is very busy and I feel that it will not be long before we have to place them in a full size hive.  My dilemma is that I have promised myself I will not keep more than four or five hives at the most.  Now we have our four hives and the division of Violette and the swarm of Violette.

Our 4 hives plus two nukesSo, if the division is successful, do I keep her or the swarm?

  • Kourosh


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We lost Iris

My camera endoscope ‘Potensic’ arrived by post which enabled me to inspect the inside of the hive Iris without opening it.  It comes with a 5 metres flexible tube that can be bent and pushed through the hive entrance.  It has a powerful light whose intensity can be adjusted easily by hand.  The camera was easy to use and quite effective.  It can be joined to a laptop or a smartphone to take still photos or videos.  I took a couple of pictures.  Sadly, the space between the middle frames looked empty.

snap_001The next day as it was sunny and the temperature was hovering around 16 degrees C (60 F), we decided to open up Iris.  I was saddened to see just three or four bees inside.  The outside frames were full of sealed honey, but no bees.

iris-with-dead-beesThere was  no doubt that they eventually succumbed to the attack by the Asian hornets. There were a few dead bees in the bottom of the hive, plus two dead hornet that had obviously been killed by the brave bees.

The other four hives were still busy, but despite the fact that December has arrived and the night temperatures have been for several nights around zero C, the Asian hornets had not stopped attacking the hives.  Amelia and I had searched the countryside around us during our walks but had not found any hornet nests.  But our friend Patricia told us a couple of nights ago that on cycling around she had seen a nest.  So off we went looking out for it.

img_0034There it was just over a kilometre from our house.  A nest at a height of some thirty metres from the ground.  Now that the trees had lost their leaves the nest was quite visible.  I could see the hornets coming and going.

It is important to note that unlike summer bees who live only 6 to 8 weeks, the winter bees live 3 to 5 months while the queen will be laying a very reduced number of eggs.  Therefore any attack on winter bees will deplete the colony more rapidly and as we found will be quite disasterous.  The other issue we have noted is that there is a misconception that by the end of October, the Asian hornets are all dead and any young queen is hidden in a hollow of a building or a tree until next Spring, when she creates a new colony.  We learnt to our horror that even the first week of December, they were attacking the bees.

After our walk in the country, we went over to see our neighbours Annie and Yvon.  He is the master of the hunt around here.  I showed him the photo and he agreed to come over in the morning with me and do what he could.  The next day we went to the site.  At that height, it is almost impossible to destroy the nest, but Yvon fired four shots in the middle of the nest, making a few large holes in it.  The idea being that the cold will do more damage and the birds will start attacking the nest, thus hastening its demose.  Firing into their nest is considered by many to be dangerous, ineffective and certainly should not be attempted in the summer time.

img_0040You can see one hornet near the top right hand side, and the nest entrance underneath where the hornets enter and leave.  It was a desperate attempt at a desperate situation.

This week the daytime temperatures have really climbed and Amelia and I have managed to have out lunch out in the garden.  She even shed her fleece!

The other four hives have been showing a great deal of activity, as you can see in this short video clip.

We felt sorry for the bees that were crowding around the entrance reducer of their hives.  They were busy bringing in pollen and naturally nectar.

img_0056Amelia felt really sorry for the girls and she asked me to take off the entrance reducer of Viollet, since we have not seen any hornets in the last couple of days.  Amelia has always had a soft spot for Viollet.

img_0074Some of the bees had huge sacs of pollen.  I can assume that although it was sixth of December, the hives still had brood.

We are fotunate that throughout winter there are still enough flowers for the girls to visit and bring in the nectar and pollen.  Gorse is a favourite at the moment, the photograph below was taken on the 7 December 2016.

img_7481Meanwhile. Viollet had finished her 2.5 Kilogram bag of fondant, so we replaced it at the same time as removing her entrance reducer.

One final observation.  When we returned from the UK in early November, we were devastated to see that despite the warm sunny days, the bees were mostly stuck inside their hives and reluctant to come out to face the hornet attack.  Panic and stress is as bad for the bees as it is for us.  So, although we sadly lost Iris, we are so glad that now the other four hives appear to be strong and all of them flying in and out in great numbers and are bringing in pollen.  We hope that the bees and all of us will have a good end to this year, or as the French say:  ‘Une bonne fin d’année’.  An early Merry Christmas to everyone. – Kourosh


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Am I killing our bees?

Amelia and I spent two week in the UK in late October.  Before our departure we were so happy with our bees. They had given us loads of honey and all the frames of each of our five hives were either full of brood or honey reserve.  This was much better than last year at this stage, when we had to remove three empty frames from Violette and two from Poppy and place a partition in their hives.

The entrance of each of our hives is fitted with a metal strip that just permits the bees to enter the hive but is (in theory) too narrow to let the Asian hornets (Vespa velutina) and European hornets (Vespa crabro) enter the hive. (Grille d’entrée anti frelons )

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During the Spring of this year we had captured over a hundred Asian hornets – mostly queens – and as the result we had noticed very few attacks from the hornets during August, September and even October.  Despite that I had left several frelon traps not far from the hives.

On our return from the UK, we went to the hives immediately, even before entering the house.  What we found just broke our hearts.  The hives were being badly attacked even though it was late in the evening.  We noticed that the Asian hornets appeared to be smaller than the previous year and they were coming out of the hive we call Iris.  She was our youngest division from Violette and in October she had a large brood and all frames at the sides were full of honey.  She had even given us honey.

The next day I opened Iris as there did not appear to be any guard bees.  I noticed a very small brood in the middle two frames but only a small handful of bees on them.  I could almost cry!

We had already bought hive muzzles and decided to place an entrance reducer on some of the hives and the muzzles on others.  Maybe it is the case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.  Maybe as far as Iris is concerned we have lost her.

poppy-dead-bees-001

Just above the metal mesh, there is an entrance to the hive, but only some of the bees are getting used to entering through that entrance.  The problem in any case is that the metal mesh in front of the muzzle has 6mm wide entrance for the bees.  Theoretically they should be able to enter and leave, but some get stuck in the mesh, others do injure themselves or die.  Others try to remove their dead sisters which makes it even a sadder sight to watch.

dead-bees-stuck-001

I cannot decide whether the muzzles are helping the bees or harming them.

My other problem is that I have fitted two of my hives with a small canopy which makes it even more difficult to fit the muzzle.  On Violette with her canopy I had to fit the muzzle above the canopy so it is really badly fitted.

violette-dead-bees-001

Fortunately during the last few days it has been raining and there are less bees coming and going.  I have not had the courage to fully inspect all the hives when it rains and disturb them even more, but I am seriously worried for at least three of the hives.

A few days ago we found eight Asian hornets had actually managed to enter the space within the muzzle of Iris.  Once inside the muzzle the hornets do not attack the bees and appear to panic.  Eventually they die.

8-frelon-trapped-iris

I watched Poppy’s guard bees actually attack two hornets inside her muzzle and eventually killed her.  But to be honest I am getting desperate.  Perhaps someone – not necessarily a beekeeper – can suggest a better design for the muzzle that would protect the bees without killing them.  For the moment I am not sure if I am hurting them more than protecting them.

Kourosh

 

 


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And the prize goes to Sunflower

It seems that we all had a hot summer.  Here, in August we had what they call the canicule – the dog days – with the temperatures nearly every day in mid to high 30s  centigrade (95 to 100F).

Throughout June and even July I didn’t mow the area near the beehives.

Beehives at la Bourie

Throughout August and now in September, the grass – well forget the grass – has been a patch of desert.  The more mature trees have decided that they just would rather go into autumn mode and their leaves have turned yellow. Amelia has been watering her precious flowers and smaller shrubs that she has so lovingly nursed, every evening.

We have always enjoyed our daily walks in the countryside around us.  After all, isn’t that the main reason why we settled to rural France?  However, the recent heat wave has meant that most afternoons we had to close the curtains and stay in the relative coolness of the house.  Nevertheless, one walk that we particularly enjoy is to a small lake where Amelia likes to photograph the solitary bees and bumbles.

The lake at Madion

I prefer to just enjoy the peaceful surrounding and look at the waterlilies.

waterlilies at Madion lake

We had practically no rain since June and I was beginning to wonder if there was enough nectar in what was left of the flowers to feed our girls as well as fill the supers with honey.

Last year I found that the change in the self fertilising variety of  sunflowers planted around us meant that the bees could not reach the nectar.

Sunflowers at Virollet

Fortunately, this year the farmers returned to the more traditional seeds which was much more attractive to bees.

Honeybees on sunflower

They do need to dig deep to collect the nectar, but at least there is no need to fly from flower to flower to collect the precious nectar.

Bee collecting nectar from sunflower

Despite the August dryness and the heat we are fortunate to have a lot of gaura around the garden.  Early morning is the best time to see the bees collecting pollen.  By around 8am, they have stripped all the pollen from the flowers.  But, they do return later in the afternoon to collect the nectar.

A bee collecting nectar on gaura

I must not forget the lavender also which has been buzzing with bees, bumbles and butterflies throughout the summer.

A bee on lavender

Our hive Violette suffered most from the afternoon sun.  So, for most of this summer I had to shelter her under a beach umbrella, the violet colour of the umbrella is just coincidental!

Hive Violette sheltered

The bees need plenty of water in summer, mainly to cool their hives.  So right in front of their hives I have placed an inverted bottle to fill a dish with water.  But it seems that they prefer to go to the zinc basin that is usually filled with water for the birds. I have now modified it by placing a large stone in the middle, so that any bees that might fall in can do a bee paddle to safety.

Honeybees drinking water

Our beekeeper friend, Michel recommended that we collect our honey on 19th of August.  We used his extractor once more and Amelia and I were delighted to see that we had actually collected a total of 74.5 Kg (164 pounds) of honey. Each of the hives, including the two divisions of this year (Iris and Pissenlit) had done an excellent job.  But the prize went to Sunflower hive that had produced the most honey.

We collected two different types of honey: the dark coloured honey containing mainly the nectar from the chestnut flowers which are abundant around our house.  We also collected the beautifully yellow honey from the sunflowers.  This year the summer honey is different from last year.  It is slightly granular in constituency, but has a lovely flavour, as it is mixed with wild flowers.

I do feel a bit guilty stealing their precious honey, but I have checked and they do have adequate reserves in their hives and the ivy is just starting to flower.

bee-on-ivy

Ivy is very important allowing the bees to complete their winter stock.  Beekeepers season really starts after the honey collection, when we have to make sure the bees are healthy and ready to go through winter.

– Kourosh