a french garden


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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

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She emerged laden with pollen.

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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


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Gardener / Beekeeper’s holiday!

To begin at the beginning:  May I wish everyone a very Happy New Year and as they say in this corner of France I wish everyone plein des bonne choses – a lot of good things.

Although here the winters are on the whole quite mild compared with Northern Europe and the USA, this year we decided to escape the dull winter days and spend the Christmas and the New Year in the Andalusia region of Spain.

Arriving the first evening in our rented apartment we had a fabulous view of the countryside all the way to the sea.

IMG_0070 Benalmadina from the apartment But frankly, what does a beekeeper and gardener do on holiday?  Well, apart from enjoying sunshine and temperatures of around 24 degrees C ( nearly 75F), naturally I chased after the girls – the feathered and buzzing varieties.  The only problem was that unlike in our own garden, in Spain I did not recognize most of the flowers.  So hopefully somebody can enlighten me.

This tiny cutie reminded me our warblers,

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The countryside showed signs of spring with wild narcissus and heather as well as gorse in flower.

IMG_0097 - Benalmadina Dec 25thIt was nice seeing the bees collecting different colours of pollen,  This one from what looks like our red hot poker – Kniphofia.

IMG_0125The evening sun on this flower showed the bees still busy collecting yellow pollen.

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We took a trip inland north west of Malaga to visit the bee museum (of course!) at the pretty small town of Colemnar.  My son joined us and Amelia and him braved the only rainy day in the town square,

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As we paint our beehives I found the museum’s hives an inspiration.

IMG_0111 Colmenar Bee Museaum

Incidentally the picture of the bee bringing a bucket full of honey to the nest-like hive shows the hives that the Spaniards in the North hang from the trees.  It was at the museum that I also learnt that the bees there were of a totally different specie from ours.  They were Apis mellifera iberica.  They are apparently more nervous and more aggressive.

Rosemary of any variety seems to attract the bees.

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Although I have no idea what type of bee this little lady is!

IMG_0214 Benalmadina

So we came back to France with a few ideas – and a few seeds collected here and there.  But isn’t that what all gardeners do?

I hope that 2018 will be a great year for all creatures great and small and that includes all of us.

Kourosh