a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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A discovery in the small vegetable garden

We have a part of the small vegetable garden that we try to keep for herbs. We have several friends who prefer tisanes to black tea so I grow mint, lemon balm. lemon verbena, camomile and dry them to make tisanes. I sometimes make them for myself, as I would like to wean myself off black tea, but it’s taking some time to change my preferences. We also grow any other bits and bobs and young plants that need keeping an eye on.

It tends to get a bit overgrown with the lavender encroaching and some seedling trees growing faster than expected and the Echium turning into amazing self-seeders. So, with our incredible spell of fine weather I decided to put some order into the plot and get lots cut back.

All went well until late in the afternoon, when it was sunny and warm, I noticed some Ivy bees flying around the border I was trying to straighten!

They looked as if they were trying to find their nests! I had a sinking feeling that I could have destroyed their nesting site.

I marked the edge with tiles and decided that all that could be done would be to cover the area with cardboard and leave it for a year in case the burrows were left intact.

I still surveyed the area daily and then I noticed two burrows.

The first was near tiles placed perpendicular to the edge, so at least all was not lost. The other was not far away but nearer the edge.

When I saw one enter the burrow, I waited patiently and photographed her as she made her exit.

I have been fascinated watching her enlarge the burrow. The proportions of earth that she is removing compared to her size is amazing. The slope of the hole is her total length long.

Now that I know that there are at least two active nests in that area, I will take the greatest of care and protect them until next year.

The female ivy bee is laying her eggs with a supply of pollen and nectar to nourish the future larvae and the adult bees will not emerge until this time next year.

I did see cuckoo bees on the same day I saw the first bees and I took this photograph.

I had already seen two different sorts of Epeolus bees on the asters. These bees are cuckoo bees and target Colletes bees like the Ivy bees (Colletes hederae). They will enter the Ivy bees’ nests and lay their eggs so that their larvae will survive rather than the Ivy bees.

Nature is tough but I will guard my nests of Ivy bees as best as I can.


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A swarm in September

It was Tuesday morning (21 September) when Michel phoned and said his friend in Royan had a swarm of bees on his drainpipe. We were all surprised. Bees swarm in the spring. However, all three of us sprang into swarm catching action and we picked up Michel outside his front door and headed to Royan, thirty minutes drive away on the coast. This was the latest swarm Michel had ever come across in his years of bee keeping and we were regaled with bee stories until we reached his friend’s house.

The three of us were lost for words when we saw the “swarm”. There are not enough bees to form a colony that would last the winter. We could not assure that there was even a queen present.

So what to do? They were cold and not flying around. We presumed they would not last long. The ruchette was there so Kourosh picked them up in his hand and gently placed them inside. They accepted their warm polystyrene shelter with good grace.

Once we got them back to the garden we decided to look for a queen. Without a queen there would be no point in going on any further. To our surprise there was a queen! Can you see her?

Here is a clue.

Here she is close-up.

The weather was fine and they seemed to be making a go of it, so on Sunday, Kourosh cracked and stole a frame from one of our hives. It was a difficult decision to make as he took a frame with some brood and young bees which could leave the original hive short for their winter supply of bees.

The frame and young bees were powdered with icing sugar to confuse their odour and then added to the polystyrene ruchette with the queen and her small court. We closed the ruchette and kept it in an outbuilding for two nights in case the young bees wanted to return to their original hive. All was quiet and when we opened their door in the morning there were no signs of battle. They new girls had been accepted.

On Wednesday we were excited to see that they were making the best of the good weather and bringing in pollen. At a guess I would say that it is gorse pollen, there is plenty of ivy around and our other hives are bringing in some ivy and some of this lovely orange pollen.

Kourosh has reduced the entrance to make it easier for them to guard against robbers or worst of all the Asian hornets.

Then on Wednesday our friend Christian phoned to see if Kourosh could help with a swarm that had to be re-homed. The bees had set up home behind closed shutters in an upstairs bedroom with the window blind closed. This would have provided a good spot in the summer and they had gone undisturbed for two or three months as the house had not been occupied.

Sorry about the quality of the photograph, but Kourosh’s flash did not go off.

This was a different proposition and Christian was prepared with frames on which he could fasten the already formed brood nest. The frames were placed in a ruchette and left until nightfall for the colony to enter. In the evening of the same day the ruchette was brought back to the garden, and we are now the adoptive parents of this colony until the spring when they can be moved. Christian will be away for six weeks and the colony will need feeding and protection during this time.

So this is Christian’s ruchette (it will be secured to the poles in due course to protect it from high winds).

And this is the tiny colony. Will either of them survive the winter? The chances are low – approaching zero for ours, much better for Christian’s. It will depend on the weather. At the moment our weather has changed from sunshine and mild temperatures to rain and cloud. We will see.


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Discoveries in the garden

We have just had a week of intermittent rain. The garden looks green, the poppies are coming up everywhere and look very happy.

The bees are still getting out during the sunny spells, you can see the black pollen on her legs.

My choisia is full of flowers and is the most perfumed plant in the garden at the moment. It has a lot of yellow leaves. I do not know whether this is due to its near death experience last summer when it was very dry. Also it is badly situated under a large Ash tree.

I do not want to lose it. The bees would miss it too. Any comments would be welcome.

I inherited a clump of Arum lilies with the garden and I have split them and they are now in some shady spots. They love the rain but are remarkably resistant in the dry summer.

I have never associated them with bees. Then I noticed a bee go into the flower – but it did not come out.

It had been caught by a crab spider. Often I notice bodies of insects inside these flowers. They make excellent traps for spiders.

I had never thought of the arum lily (or any lily) being attractive to bees but I noticed that the bees were very interested in them.

They were disappearing into the base of the flower and gathering a pure white pollen.

Bees are content to share when there is room for all to forage. They seemed to be getting something from the yellow part of the flower although the white pollen was deep inside.

Our first bush peony (Festiva maxima) has just started to flower.

The bees were getting right in there and gathering plenty of pollen. The bees seem indifferent to red varieties of peony that I have. I will keep my eyes on the red peonies when they open but I am sure the bees ignore these ones.

The most exciting discovery was strings of spawn on top of the new little pond. Kourosh pointed them out but when we looked the next day they had disappeared! However, they had just sunk beneath the surface and were still there.

I think it could be possibly toad spawn as these are usually laid in strings. We do have toads. I see them when I am weeding and it makes me jump to see what looks like a lump of earth start to move – they are so well camouflaged. I always worry I might decapitate one with my weeding tool, they look such gentle creatures. Toads are useful for gardeners as they will eat slugs.

Yesterday they had just started to change into their tadpole stage. There seems masses of them so I hope some will survive.

I also noticed a strange creature in the photograph. I never did pond dipping as a child so I do not know what it is. It looks like the nymph stage of some insect, on the leftside of the photo. Pehaps a damsel fly? It is good that the little pond is attracting some life.


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First swarm of 2021

The first swarm came into the garden on Saturday 20 March 2021. One day earlier than our first swarm last year. I do not know where it came from but it was not one of ours. We had divided our largest hive “Poppy” and put on a super. We did wonder If she could have swarmed but she is happily filling the super at this moment and the others are not ready yet.

We were happy to give this swarm a home.

The swarm had landed not too high on a cotoneaster and Kourosh held the hive under the swarm and I shook the bees into the hive. We added frames and placed it on a sheet to encourage any stragglers to crawl in.

Job done! Time for a cold drink and self-congratulations.

When we returned to check on the hive it appeared that all the bees were not in agreement of staying in their new home. We had to collect them in the bucket and pour them into the opened hive.

After a few more disagreements they gave up and settled in.

This is our friends’ hive so we put it in an outbuilding in the dark for two nights before we took them to our friends’ nearby hive area very early in the morning. Kourosh opened their entrance later in the morning and they have accepted their new home graciously.

The star of the garden at the moment is our flowering cherry “Accolade”. O.K. it isn’t very big but its our first flowering cherry and it is only its second year in the garden.

You really need to get a bit closer to appreciate the flowers.

Just beautiful!

The bees are in total agreement with our choice.

Talking of bees, I saw two carpenter bees mating holding onto the petals of the leucojum. I cannot remember seeing them mating before.

Yesterday I noticed a strange circle showing in the grass of our front lawn. Aliens? Fungal disease?

No, it was only Kourosh cutting the grass but not having the heart to mow down all the Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum) flowers !


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Bees in the heather

“That’s not a honeybee!”, said Kourosh. He was right! There were plenty of honeybees in the winter flowering heather but he was not one of them. Yesterday morning (16 February 2021) was warm and sunny and the cute little bee was not a honeybee. I thought he looked like a male bee because he had elegant long antenna and the furry face looked like some of the solitary male bees I have seen.

As I watched him another, slightly larger bee, alighted on some nearby heather flowers and he immediately leapt on top of her. Well, that settled the question rapidly.

You would think I would know what type of bees they are but these photographs are not good enough to identify them. There are just under 1,000 species of bees in France (20,000 species in the world).

However, it was a very special moment and it brought home to me that spring is coming. Everything is on the move and it is worth keeping your eyes wide open.

If anyone is interested I have more photographs in Bees in a French Garden.


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More rain and floods

At the bottom of our garden the river has been rising.

France is now under a curfew at 6.00 p.m. in a winter that has been exceptionally dull and rainy. Many parts of France are suffering from floods. These winter floods are becoming recurrent and coupled with hot dry summers as the world climate becomes more perturbed.

The river Seine in the Paris region has flooded some houses so frequently that there is a plan by the municipality to buy the houses and revert the area back to nature. We wonder at the planning permission when we see films of the houses washed away by the rain and flooded by the high tides.

This is the road leading to our house. The house is just behind the line of trees on the right.

Looking from the same spot to the left of the road, the fields are completely under water. More and more in this area, the trees and hedges are cut down to give larger fields to cultivate maize, sunflowers, rape and cereal.

This is the canal that was dug about 70 years ago to make sure the road was not flooded. The land rises towards the house and the water passes into the vast stretches of marshland around the Seudre as it heads for the sea. Our little river is on the left of the photograph and although both strips of water are moving fast, I don’t expect it to get high enough to overflow into the garden.

This is a nostalgic photograph of one of the last apricot flowers from our garden. We have cut down the last apricot tree and I gathered the twigs and brought them inside to watch them blossom for the last time.

The highs and lows of our spring temperatures here mean that we seldom get a good crop of apricots.

However, our apple and pear trees are more successful and Kourosh has wanted a Nashi for some years after he found a tree with the delicious fruit nearby in an untended garden. The fruit was delicious, it looked like an apple but was extremely juicy with a flavour reminiscent of pears.

So the decision was taken to cut down the apricot tree (see stump on the left of the new Nashi.)

Kourosh had tried to graft the unknown fruit onto our apple trees. The grafts were unsuccessful and I wonder if this is because that despite its appearance of a sleek, round apple the Nashi is Pyrus pyrifolia – a pear.

So despite the rain we took the decision to buy a Nashi. We were able to source a Nashi “Kosui” and we hope it will thrive in its new home.

The garden seems to have decided to push forth with vigour. The Hellebores are shooting up and I have so many this year I did not mind cutting some for a table decoration. Anyway, the bumblebees are not awake yet so they won’t miss them.

My Cornus mas or Cornelian cherry has just started flowering but the plants are not big enough to attract the bees – not enough flower heads to make it easy work for the bees.

On the other hand my bushes of Viburnum tinus are large and full of bees – so size does matter.

Every year I patrol our hazel catkins to get a photograph of the bees gathering pollen which my French sources say is one of the most important sources of pollen in the spring for bees. I have never seen a bee on the hazel catkins. So I was quite excited when I read in theFebruary 2021 issue of BeeCraft magazine that the bees will ignore it if other pollen is freely available.

So the bees can be choosy too!

The size of the actual flower does not count for the bees. We have lots of tiny blue speedwell growing in the grass and the bees visit them assiduously. The visit does not last long so once again it will be the quantities of flowers that attracts.

The girls are very busy at the moment. We put a layer of insulation over the brood box in December as we had freezing temperatures. We do not intend to remove it yet as it is only the beginning of February and colder weather is forecasted.

Nevertheless, the girls seem determined to get cracking. The short video (30 seconds) shows the different colours of pollen being taken into the hives. I like to watch them and guess where the pollen comes from.

As I have mentioned everything seems to be powering ahead to grow in an unseemly haste. These polyanthus have sprung into new plants on the seed heads of their old flowers.

Is it a vegetative growth or have the seeds decided to germinate on the flowerhead? It seems a good strategy on the part of the plant to find a less crowded place to grow – at least a flower stem’s length from the parent plant. I have never noticed this before. Is it common?


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A smile on a cloudy day?

This originates from Instagram (@irrev_gardener) – I do not have an account myself but I hope The Irreverent Gardener will not mind me sharing this.

 

⚠️Bad Poetry Alert⚠️

 

Found this little bumblebee today.

I am not responsible for the poem that follows. (Ok, I am.)

 

                     ‘Save the bees’ 🐝

I hatched out a little too early I didn’t know where to hide,

Then I met a slightly odd lady Who invited me inside. 🐝

She offered me some nectar Presented me with a flower

And then some sugar water To give my buzzy bits power. 🐝

She really seemed to like me ‘We all must save the bees!’

I nodded my agreement As she brought out meats and cheese. 🐝

Then she passed around canapes And offered me some wine

She slipped on a formal evening dress And invited me to dine. 🐝

She laid out some jam sandwiches And a chunky honey comb

As she tucked in my tiny napkin I felt the urge to go home. 🐝

She beamed as I nibbled some food Her eyes were slightly manic

When she offered me a bed for the night I really started to panic. 🐝

It’s really nice that people care But she was taking it too far

I sidled towards the window As she whipped out a tiny jar. 🐝

Inside the jar was a tiny bed A bathtub, and a chair

I flew out of the window quick As she lunged into the air. 🐝

I had a narrow escape my friends My freedom was nearly lost

What makes it worse is the simple fact That I’m actually a wasp. 🐝

 

I so love this poem!  I suppose I felt a twinge of affinity for the mad bee lady as do rescue tired bumble bees form time to time.

I wonder if it would be possible to convince The Irreverent Gardener to start a blog?  I can’t imagine that he is really appreciated on Instagram.

This is my bee rescue dating way back to May 2012 https://afrenchgarden.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/bumble-bee-rescue/

 


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Water, water everywhere

Since last week it has been raining more and the field behind the garden is covered in water.  You should just be able to see the hives in the background, of the photograph.

Looking in the exactly same direction but further back, a second field is also completely flooded.

Fields on the other side are much the same.  In fact, any low land the Seudre flows past in this area has been flooded.  A lot of the land in this area was marsh land so it is not so unusual.  It is just these areas have been much drier in the past forty years.

The rain has kept me out of the garden but the bees have always taken the opportunity of the mild temperatures and any sunshine to get out of their hives.

We had five hives at the end of the summer.  Pissenlit was the smallest and we reduced her to six frames, hoping she would thrive on the ivy in the autumn.  She seemed less and less active until at the beginning of December we opened her to find no bees.  The frames of honey were there but no bees and no signs of disease.  She was a large swarm that had come to our apricot tree in the front garden on 31 May this year.  She had built up quite well but did not keep up with her original energy.

Our next disappointment was when we opened the Poppy hive for the winter oxalic acid treatment on 16 December and found the hive empty.

This was a surprise as she had gone into winter as our largest and busiest hive.  We have had the Poppy hive from 2015 and she has swarmed and re-queened every year.  We had noticed in the past couple of weeks that she was not so busy but we were not too concerned.

Once again, there were no signs of disease and there were plenty of stores of honey and pollen.

I will add a close up of the same frame, so that you can see the different colour of pollen as well as honey that they had stored..

The few bees we found at the bottom of the hive were all perfect with no wing malformations.

There were never any large number of dead bees in front of the hive.  It was just empty and we feel that the emptying must have taken place relatively rapidly as we watch our hives regularly.

Moving onto a happier note, we have now three large bushes of winter flowering honeysuckle near the hives and they are soon popular with the bees when the rain stops.

The Mahonias, Charity and two Media, are all flowering and much appreciated by the bees.

The Eriobotrya japonica or Loquat has even more perfumed flowers and that attracts the bees too.  This tree would be hardy in most places in the UK but I do not recall seeing it.  You would be unlikely to get fruit in the UK but I highly recommend it for its perfume.

Our Viburnum tinus on the fence is full of buds and the bees will not have long to wait until the flowers open.

In fact, some of the flowers lower down have already opened.

These plants are very easy to propagate if you cut off some roots from a large plant.  We are hoping to have a few more on the road side and we were very pleased to see these cuttings thrive and start to flower this year.

I finish this post marveling at the optimism of this white tailed bumble bee.  In the UK the bumble bee queens are supposed to snuggle down and rest/hibernate until the spring allows them fine enough weather to start making their nest and their colony.  This white tailed bumble bee has pollen on her hind legs so I can only assume she has started her nest and is raising her young.

The rain is against her but I hope she finds enough nectar and pollen in the garden to raise at least some worker bumble bees to help her find food and to keep them warm.


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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.

IMG_0057

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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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