a french garden


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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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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 )

img_0123

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

 

 


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The bees and Sweet Chestnuts

Rucher

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

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

Chestnut flowers overhead

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

Chestnut flower stamens

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

Stand of Chestnut trees

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

Chestnut flowers and stamens

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

 

 

Close up Chestnut flowers

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

Chestnut flowers

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

Honey bee on Bramble Rubus fruticosus

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

Megachile on Bramble

It was not only the honey bees.

Butterfly on bramble

But other pollinators were attracted to the brambles.

Honey bee on old man's beard Clematis vitalba

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

daucus carota Queen Anne's Lace

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

Bees in super

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


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A queen is born

Perhaps it was only the beginner’s luck, but last year we had three bee swarms that all came directly to a six frame hive that we had placed outside to attract them.

This year we thought we were well prepared with our three polystyrene hives to attract any new swarms.

Swarm fever seems to have been contagious.

Between 14th April and 27th April, we collected a total of nine swarms on trees close to our hives! A couple of days two swarms arrived on the same day.  Three of the swarms came from our own hives.  There are one or two professional beekeepers near us who keep their hives at the edge of the woods.  I assume that the swarms came from there.  We gave all the swarms to our beekeeper friend, Michel, to whom we have always relied for help.  The last swarm we kept for our friend, Angélique, from the bee school.

Queen Angélique for Angélique

When we first noticed a queen cell in Amelia’s favourite hive, Violette, we divided her.  A week later we saw more queen cells and divided her once again.  I know experienced beekeepers would have told us that a division might not prevent swarming – and they were right.  Violette swarmed a week later.  It was a risk, especially as we appreciate that divisions in hives are not always successful.

Three weeks later we inspected all hives as by then all should have had new queens.  To my dismay, there were no brood as yet either in our three hives, nor in the two nukes that we have made divisions.  I was disappointed, but then I read  the very informative blog by Rusty, on ‘When will a newly-hatched queen begin to lay?’   Rusty’s response to that question was:  ‘Holy guacamole, give the woman a chance!’  Despite my impatience, we did exactly as Rusty ‘commanded’.

On 20th May we opened all the hives for inspection.  They all had two or three large frames of brood.

Brood on the newly divided bee hive

I was especially pleased to see that both divisions from Violette had each three frames of lovely brood.  In fact it was not until afterwards that I looked through the pictures Amelia had taken whilst I inspected the hives, that we noticed the new queen.  We placed the first division of Violette into her own 10 frame hive which has now been named Pissenlit, as at this time there are a lot of dandelions growing  in the countryside around us.

New queen bee

The bottom of our garden is once again adorned with active hives, all with new queens.  We will wait for another week or so before we place the second division into her own hive (any suggestion for a name?)

Our beehives at Virollet

The second hive from the right is Queen Angélique, which will be transported to our friend’s house early tomorrow morning.

One final note, I must mention that a couple of weeks ago we attempted to extract honey from one super.  At that time the nectar was mainly from rapeseed flower.  As all beekeepers know, it crystallizes very quickly and is very difficult to spin out in the centrifuge.  We did make a small quantity of honey, and cut up the rest to be used by ourselves and our grateful neighbours as we all love comb honey.

Honey and Comb honey from rapeseed

Kourosh