a french garden


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Is this the last bee swarm of the season?

For us, in this little corner of France Spring 2020 was a little unusual.  The winter was rather mild, and then we had quite a lot of rain in early Spring which together with warm weather pushed all the plants forwards – specially the nettles and other weeds.

So, during the self isolation period of the pandemic of Covid 19, Amelia and I spent a lot of time weeding, and gardening and weeding!

Bee on Glycine

But gardening has its rewards, as we could take our coffee breaks and smell the heady perfume of the wisteria along the fence.

Poppy and Bee

A few years I brought the seeds of a rather large poppy from Spain.  We simply named it the Barcelona Poppy,  It is now much appriciated in several spots in the garden.

Bee in Rose

Another favourite of mine is a rose bush called Phyllis Bide.  It has smallish flowers but very delicate colour.

Bee Swarm

During the cold months of winter the queen bees almost stop laying eggs as there is shortage of pollen and nectar outside,  But not in our garden.  Amelia has planted so many winter flowering plants that the bees pop out frequently for a little snack all through winter.  Of course outside in the open fileds there are also plenty of wild flowers like dandilions that are welcomed by the bees.   As the result the colonies grow quite fast and then nearly half a colony swarms forming a new colony.  We had our first swarm of the season on the 21st of March (the vernal equinox).  We collected it and placed it in a 6 frame nucleus hive.

Since that day until the 26th April, we had a total of 8 bee swarms all landing within a few metres of our beehives.  We know that at least two the swarms came from our own colonies.  Early last winter we lost two of our hives and so two large swarms were directly placed in hives.  Two other hives after swarming did not develop as well as we had hoped.  So after a couple of weeks that the newly arrival swarms had well developed, we mixed them with each of the less-developed hives after sugar dusting both colonies to help them accept the odour of each other.

Our friends who keep bees a short distance away also had similar experince and we gave them the other swarms.

Hives in Sring 2020

We had promised ourselves that we will not keep more than 3 hives at the bottom of our garden – OK, we said just 2 more in case we lose any.  But by end of April the bottom of the garden had become a nursery of hives and nucleus hives.

Field of Poppies

Each year, on 5th of May the Europeans commemorate the end of War in Europe.  On that day, I passed the centre of our village and noticed a field some half a kilometres long full of red poppies and it made me think of all those brave young men and women whose blood was spilled on the European soil.

Bee in Cotoneaster

The cotoneaster is now in full flower and you should hear the buzz of the honey bees as well as the bumble bees on them.  Sometimes when I pass the bushes, I wonder of there is a swarm, as they make so much noise.

Essaim 28.05.2020

Just when we thought the swarm season has finished, on 28th May we had another bee swarm very low on a branch of our loquat.

We are happy that we have now all our five hives active and we have placed super on them to hopefully collect some summer honey.  However, we did have to recombine 4 of the swarms with our colonies as they were weak.  We also gave four of the swarms to our friend as they lost four hives.  So, that is why I found this spring somewhat strange.

I hope that all is well that ends well.

Kourosh


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A View of Andalusia

Happy New Year to you all.  I do hope that this new year and the new decade will bring much happiness to everyone.

Amelia and I spent the holidays visiting my son in Andalusia, Spain, at Malaga.  On first of January the sun was shining beautifully and the temperature in the shade was about 18 degree C (65F).

Malaga 01.01.2020

There were even a few hardy people (must have been British!) who swam in the sea.

Malaga (03) 01.01.2020

The public WCs along the beach have always caught my eye.  The imagination and the artistic inspiration of the Spaniards impresses me.

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The outside walls of the buildings were decorated with beach scenes.

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Why should such ordinary buildings not be decorated?

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The WCs were clean and clearly newly painted.

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I think they would amuse the children as well as the adults.

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It was not only the WCs, but many of the recycling bins near the beach were also decorated.

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One last memory for me was the sign on one pet grooming shop in Malaga which did make me laugh.

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Have a wonderful 2020.

    •  Kourosh


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The Season Starts or Finishes now?

The beekeepers, consider that after the honey harvest in autumn, the next season just begins.  There is so much to be done to tidy the equipment and make sure that the bees have enough provisions to last them through the winter. We been lucky this year.

Honeybee on winter honeysuckle (3)

Even these last days of November, the winter flowering honeysuckle provides both nectar and pollen for our bees.

bumble Bee 1

It is not just the honey bees that interest us.  The bumble bees are frequent visitors at this time on several mahonias in the garden.

Beehives near la Seudre

Our five hives are tucked away at the end of the garden, and the autumn so far has been mild.  This has not been the story across France, where the French Union of Beekeepers (UNAF) have named 2019 as a black year,  UNAF has applied to the French Government to take the necessary steps to indemnify the beekeepers in the worst affected regions,  The cold spring and exceptionally hot summer contributed to the loss of many bee colonies across France.

Here the summer was so dry that even the sunflowers did not have much nectar, so the bees could not produce as much honey as usual.  Normally one hive can produce 20 or even 30 kilograms of honey in autumn.  The average in this region was around 5 kilogram per hive.  As I said, we were lucky as around us there are forests of sweet chestnut trees, so we collected a fair amount of all flowers honey as well as forest honey which is mostly chestnut honey,  Certainly enough for us and our friends.

In total we also collected 11 bee swarms that came to our garden.  We housed them and kept them for a few weeks and then passed them to friends who had lost many colonies.

Beehives near la Seudre. 1. jpg

During the past month we have had a lot of rain and after 18 months that the river at the bottom of the garden was dry, now la Seudre is almost full of water.

So, Amelia and I are already looking forward to next year beekeeping life.

For me, apart from occasional visit to see how the bees are getting on, the pleasure is to watch the birds. coming to our front garden.

Robin

The robin, specially at this time of the year reminds us of Christmas cards.

She comes regularly bathing in front of the dinning room.

Robin bathing 1 (2)

So does the sungthrush.

Song thrush bathing 1

Sometimes I wonder if the birds like washing themselves or do they, like children, actually enjoy bathing.

Song thrush bathing 1 (3)

I think this one was washing his ears!

At this time of the year Amelia likes collecting the leaves for composting, but some of the trees have not totally lost their leaves, The liquidambar leaves, however, are so pretty even on the ground that Amelia does not have the heart to rake them.

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So I wish you a happy autumn and together we look forward to the start of another year of beekeeping as well as gardening.

Kourosh

 


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Garden Birds

The real hot days of summer (la canicule) are behind us.  Amelia and I found that this summer with the temperatures often between 35 and 40 degrees Centigrade, we were sitting less in the garden.  Oh, well, I told her, it is a good excuse to go to the beach!

asters

Now in late September it is milder and we can attend to the neglected tasks in the garden.  And to admire the autumn flowers and of course to sit down for a cup of coffee.

front garden

Our garden is usually very peaceful, except for the chattering of the birds.  But the garden would surely not be the same without the birds.

When we first bought this house we had very few visiting birds.  Now I am amazed with the variety of the birds.  They all need water, and so we have placed several watering havens for the bees and the birds.

The hoopoe has become a regular summer visitor to the garden.

Hoopoe

The green woodpecker made a bright splash of colour in the garden.  It is the first year that I have seen the woodpecker in the front garden.

woodpecker 1

The Redstarts have remained one of my favourite birds.  This year they occupied four nests that I had made for them and they raised at least four young ones in each nest!  We get both the black Redstarts as well as the common Redstarts.

red start 1

Birds require plenty of water, not only to drink but to keep their feathers clean and their antics in the trough provide us with lots of amusement.  We  see Redstarts taking their bath almost every day at the moment.

red start 2

I am almost sure that they actually enjoy frolicking in the water as much as my granddaughter used to do.

baby sparrow 1

The sparrow make their nest under the eaves, and I am sure that they must have had three broods this year.  Like all baby animals, they too look cute.

baby sparrow 2

But without a doubt, my favourite, at least for this year, is the warbler (I believe it is the melodious warbler).

Sometimes we have mistaken it for a sparrow as it is shy and moves away quickly, but its fine beak is a give-away.  The warbler has also started taking bath, but it is a quick dip in and out.

A couple of year ago, from a holiday in Malta, we brought with us a few seeds of what I call the giant fennel.  It has grown to well over two metres high and its flowers certainly attracted the bees.  Now in seeds, it seems to attract the warbler.

warbler 3

We shall certainly try to replant it next year, if nothing else to make sure that this beautiful bird keeps coming to our garden.

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– Kourosh


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Redstarts Breaking News

A few days ago, coming out of the back room from the kitchen I noticed that the red-start had thrown out a tiny broken egg shell.

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I was quite excited hoping that the birds would let me have a quick look.  But, as both the male and female guard their nest, I am reluctant to disturb them too much.

Three days later, I did get my chance, as I saw the female returned with a caterpillar and then a few minutes later she left the nest,  So I rushed to have a look.  All five babies must have thought their mummy is back

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Kourosh


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Redstart

What would the garden be without the birds?

In our garden in France some days we hardly hear any sound of human existence.  Just the two of us digging, weeding and replanting.

This Spring we have  four pairs of redstarts (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) nesting in our garden, on the ash tree, under the car porch, in the Persimmon (Kaki) tree, and on the low beam outside the  kitchen.  This last one was originally an old robin nest.  That makes it a bit awkward as we have to be able to get in and out of the outhouse, but it seems that the bird and us have got used to each other, as long as we don’t look at her when we pass by.

Actually I think three pairs are the common redstarts and the other pair are black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros).

redstart 2

Here in France they are called le Rouge-queue and le Rouge-queue noir.  Looking at their tails, I think I agree with the French.

redstart 3

I had a peep inside their nest earlier, as the little bird was carefully preparing it.  Have you ever seen such soft bedding?

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A few days later I looked at the nest on the beam outside the kitchen door,  The nest was all ready with five eggs.  It looks as if she has used the sheep’s wool from next door to line the nest.

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I have left several water dishes for our birds, but I think the redstarts are the cleanest birds.

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Their bath times remind me of my grand daughter who loved what she used to call her ‘splishy splashy’.  Is this one washing her ears?

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The black redstart also loves bath times,

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I wonder if they would like deeper baths?

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This all makes a change from the bees and swarm collecting.

Kourosh


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The Ash Tree

Ash trees border

She refuses to be another daisy,
Picked for her beauty and left to die,
She is pure, wild, fearless and free.
Difficult to find even with an open eye.
Yet as grounded as the mighty ash tree.
She wears strength on her leaves,
And when darkness bereaves,
She does not fear,
She becomes it.                                     ( The Ash Tree by Ashley Wilson)

Along our border, we had a whole line of mighty ash trees.  During the past few years we have lost three during summer storms.  Lucien, my old neighbour told me that he planted them when he was very young.  He is no longer with us,  but his memory through these trees, that now must be nearly a hundred years old, will remain.

Ash trees

They provide a great deal of shade and in summer Amelia and I love them and sometimes curse them as they provide too much shade to the vegetable garden.

The ash tree (Fraxinus) flowers are pretty enough but do not appear to interest our bees.

The ash trees have both male and female flowers that can appear on different trees or on different branches.  We do get a lot of flowers on our ash trees but they seem to attract very few pollinators.

So, a couple of years ago, Amelia chose another variety, the flowering ash tree (Fraxinus Ornus).  We bought a tree which is some three meters tall, and has started to flower beautifully.

Flowering Ash Tree

And I am delighted that its flowers do indeed attract both the bumble bees as well as our honey bees,

Fraxinus Ornus (1)

Although this little lady is carrying pollen, I think that she is also sucking nectar.

Fraxinus Ornus (2)

Ashley Wilson, at the end of her poem notes that for the Celts, the Ash tree was considered as the guardian of children and represented resurrection and renewal.  To the druids, the ash tree represented the realm between the sky and the earth.

So I hope that in these troubled times, our ash trees – both types – will be a sign of renewal into Spring and Summer and that they will be the guardian of our little bees.

Kourosh

 


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A queen is born

There are several aspects of beekeeping that I find quite fascinating.

Opening a hive gives me an immediate idea of how the entire colony is behaving.  Last week, for example, Amelia and I opened the hive with the swarm that we had captured on 31st March.   Straight away we could see that in the intervening two weeks, the colony had build up wax on all ten frames and were evidently quite busy.  That for us was already a good sign.

 

Opening a hive

Lifting a frame one by one we saw that they had made plenty of honey in reserve and had nice closed brood cells.  Brood cells for the (female) worker bees have a uniform roundness to them

bees around closed brrod cells

In the middle we could see one or two larvae not yet closed.  The bees were busy feeding the young larvae.

I love looking  at the different colour of pollen stocked fairly close by the brood cells for the nurse bees to use, feeding the young larvae.

colour of polen

We always look to see if there are open or closed queen cells.  The colony sometimes decide to make a new queen, if they sense that the old queen is not up to the mark.  Other times a strong colony makes a queen cell to create a new queen just before the old queen with nearly half the colony swarms.  The queen cells are much longer than brood cells for worker bees.

opened queen cell

Our friend Michel the beekeeper had a few days ago mentioned that he had apparently lost the queen in one of his hives.  That can happen as result of an accident whilst inspecting a hive or for a variety of other reasons.

A few days ago we helped another beekeeper friend divide a very busy hive that he keeps near our house.  The colony had up to fifteen queen cells all closed.  They made two divisions from that hive, but I asked to separate two or three closed queen cells so that we might be able to save Michel’s colony by transferring one queen cell.  The queen cells with a small amount of joining wax was cut out by a knife and placed a plastic container and brought to our house.   As it so happens, in the short distance of some 100 metres to our house, one of the queens was born.

One often as beekeeper hears about the piping of a queen, but even for an experienced beekeeper it is rare to actually hear a queen piping (Le chant de la reine).  You can see the peanut shell shapes of the queen cells and the queen in the plastic box.  She actually had two different songs (!) but I was lucky to be able to record her at least piping.  You can listen as it takes only a few seconds.

Michel came over and collected the queen and later placed her in a little “cage” closed with candy at one end, and introduced her between two frames in his hives.  After getting used to the new queen the bees chew the candy and the queen enters the hive.

Kourosh

 


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Spring update on the bees

Well, at last the Spring is here (I think!).  I know that because it is now two weeks since we started hearing the Cuckoo.  It is also because the birds have started pairing and courting.

Pair of doves

And… our tortoises have eventually come out of hibernation.

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The  birds we rarely see in the garden in winter, including the green finch

Greenfinch

and the green woodpecker, have returned.

Woodpecker

As for our bee hives, unfortunately we lost one of our bee colonies – Iris – to the Asian hornets last November.  The hornets don’t just destroy the colonies, but weaken them  in autumn at exactly the time that the colonies need to produce the winter bees to keep them warm and stock up with provisions for the winter.  So perhaps Iris was not a strong enough queen to keep up producing enough young to replace the losses.

But we were very lucky.  In this region of France, the Charente-Maritime –  many bee keepers  have lost large numbers of hives this past year – on average more than 50%.  One beekeeper friend near us lost 10 out of a total of ten hives.  Another has lost six out of seven hives.  So we have taken it upon ourselves to give a helping hand to our friends.

The bees maintain a temperature inside their hive of over 30 degrees centigrade,  In February the outside temperature is still low to inspect the interior of the hives, but one can get a very good idea by just observing their coming and going.  If they bring in pollen that is a sure sign that they have brood and need to feed the young.  So by clicking on the link (1 min 07 sec.), I invite you to see what the entrance of one of our hives looked like on 16th February with outside temperature of 7-8 degrees centigrade.  You can also notice three different colours of pollen brought in by the bees.

Strangely, now that the weather has improved the bees do not come out until it warms up to over 10 degrees centigrade.

Our other four hives have survived the winter and emerged as strong colonies, and the inspection in March showed that they have strong broods on three or even four frames in March.

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At the end of March we decided to divide two colonies – Pissenlit (Dandelion) and also Tournesol (Sunflower) – These were our two strongest colonies.

The division of a hive is in theory to expand the number of colonies and also to prevent the almost annual swarming of a hive – although we have found that when the swarm fever sets in a colony, nothing will prevent them from swarming.

One can remove a brood frame with a queen cell, if it is observed, and make a new colony, or one can remove a frame without the queen or queen cell, but containing fresh eggs, and hope that the colony will make their own new queen.

In both hives we found the queen and removed the frame with the queen.  We decided to give away our queens plus  two frames of broods and plenty of bees.  Our friends are naturally delighted and the bees are expanding at a fast rate.  This means that we have now two orphan colonies.  We hope that they will make new queens.  So like expectant parents we just keep our fingers crossed.

We have meanwhile placed a six-frame beehive above the old hen-house to attract any passing swarm.  During the last few years we have caught a number of swarms there.

Hive on the old hen house

The scouts bees have already started coming each day.  So we wait and see what happens this year.

There is plenty of flowering shrubs and flowering fruit trees at the moment for the bees. This little lady has been taking pollen from the Camellia

bee on camelia 1-001

She emerged laden with pollen.

bee on camelia 2

Meanwhile on Sunday 31st March, whilst entertaining an old friend for lunch a large swam arrived on the quince tree at about one pm.

New Swarm March 2019

All thought of lunch was put aside as Amelia and I rushed to put on our bee suits.

We placed a sheet under the quince tree which is full of blossoms.  I shook the lowest branch vigorously  and caught the swarm directly in Iris’s old hive and left her there until the evening to let them settle in.  As the queen was now inside, the rest of the bees you can see below on the outside of the hive just marched inside.  They were really gentle and the operation was very smooth.

This is the first time we have put a swarm directly into a full sized hive, previously we have used the smaller 6 frame hive to collect swarms.  As this was a large swarm we feel it was a good choice.

swarm hived

Quite a few of the bees in the swarm were carrying pollen, which I thought was unusual.  Then on Monday morning at about 9 am I saw the new hive was bringing in pollen.  Again strange as I had placed undrawn wax sheet on the frames and surely, I thought, the bees have not had the time to draw it in order to stock the pollen.  Oh, well, I guess they know what they are doing!  I hope that a more experienced person can give me an explanation.

New Swarm hived

So here we are with a garden full of flowers and blossom and our now five hives.  I hope that the two orphan hives will do their job.  But that is hopefully for another update in the future.

Our Hives Spring 2019

Kourosh


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Of Birds and Bees

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair –
The bees are stirring – birds are on the wing –
And Winter, slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I, the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge Work without Hope, 1825)

What can I say about our winter this year in France.  Well as they say here, ce n’était pas normal – or in plain English it was pretty miserable.  Generally it was not too cold, but cloudy and rainy – a bit like England, to be honest.  Then all of a sudden we had two days of winter, with temperatures dropping to minus 7 degrees Centigrade and a touch of actual snow.

As we were warned, Amelia and I had placed additional insulation on top and around of beehives.

Virollet Bee hives

But thankfully for our little girls, the following day the temperature rose by 20 degrees,! And the bees were rushing out in great numbers in search of pollen and nectar.

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When we arrived in France on a permanent basis, we had very few birds visiting our garden.  The Robin was, of course, sure that this is his garden and we are only the new tenants.  He used to come every day at the beginning and even now he is the most friendly bird in the garden.

Robin at Virollet

I started feeding the birds on a regular basis (they eat more than five kilos of seeds every week!) and over the years we enjoy drinking our coffee and watching the birds on the patio.    Three years ago, my granddaughter on one of her visits here returned from a local fête having spent all her pocket money in buying two young doves.  She released them in our front garden and each year they seem to have raised two babies.  I see the older doves around our small hamlet, but the youngest ones visit us on a daily basis.

Doves at Virollet

I have been delighted to see that the two pairs of goldfinches that visit our garden have gained enough confidence to come to our patio regularly.  The blue tits, for whom I place the peanuts at this time of the year before they have young ones, looked at the goldfinches a bit suspiciously at first, but decided that there is enough for all.

Goldfinch sharing with blue tit

For the first time I have seen another new bird coming to the patio – a brambling (Fringilla montifringilla) or as is know here, a pinson du nord.

Brambling - Pinson du Nord

I do think that Brambling is rather beautiful.  However, another bird that is unknown to me – and hopefully someone can identify – is a really elegant lady-like bird.

Unnamed bird

The rain has brought back the water to the river Seudre running at the bottom of our garden.  Amelia literally dumped all surplus daffodils last year along the river bank, and they have awarded us with flower this year.

Virollet France (2)

But this is also beginning of the period when we start watching our hives in case they are thinking of swarming, and of course hoping to catch any new swarm that might be visiting our garden.  We have placed two six frames mini hives as traps, one at the bottom of the garden and one on top of the old chicken house, as there we have caught several swarms in previous years.

So we are set and ready.  Hurry up summer, we are tired of this winter.

Kourosh