a french garden


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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.

IMG_0083

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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Rain, rain

Last night on the news it said that this January in France has seen the highest rainfall in a hundred years!  I must admit everyone around is bemoaning the clouds and the rain although, as a gardener, I tend to see the bright side of all this as everything was too dry last year.  In addition, we have had no local flooding – not yet anyway.

Most of the winter flowers seem happy to cope with the rain, humidity and low light conditions but not my Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox).  The wet fading flowers are being attacked by black mold, however, on the rare days we get the sunshine the wonderful perfume of the Wintersweet flowers permeates the air.

The Wintersweet only started to flower last year and this is last year’s photograph of the beautiful, waxy petals of the  flower.  I will have to wait another year to see it in full flower.

The birds on the other hand do not appear to mind the rain and the Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) come down to forage in our “lawn” ignoring the sparrows and the bird food on the patio.  This photograph has been taken through the window while it was raining so the quality is not excellent.

The grass is shooting up as high as the finch’s head and making him bedraggled.

I wondered what they could be eating until I saw that the grass is already producing ample flower heads and the grass seeds are easily seen sticking to its beak.  I had never considered that the grass seed would be so attractive to them.

Hey you two!  There is a new birdhouse all ready hanging in the apricot tree on the side of the garden that you prefer.  Take a look in while you are here.


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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,

IMG_0020 Malaga

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.

IMG_0158 Benalmadina

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,

IMG_0109 Colmenar

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.

IMG_0209 Benalmadina

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

 


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A year in the bee garden – December

I love this Christmas bee story by Emma.
I hope you have some little ones to enthrall with it.

Mrs Apis Mellifera

It was the night before Christmas, when all through the garden not a creature was stirring, not even a fox.

The bees were nestled all snug in their hives, while visions of spring danced in their heads…

A little Christmas story from the bees to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a happy new year.

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Out of the bedroom window

Out of the bedroom window the leaves under the apricot tree testify that autumn is changing the garden.

With the tall “Sweet Lavender” aster now in flower,  the asters are still the main attraction.

The carder bees’ colour may be fading but they love the tiny flowers of the “Sweet Lavender”

The asters are the best place to see the bee action.

There are still a lot of butterflies around like this Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) and they join the bees.

I decided to visit my Mulberry as we have had no rain for some time and it was never watered during the dry summer.

The leaves change to a beautiful gold in the autumn and this year is no different, thankfully.

I was standing admiring the Mulberry when I noticed a huge dragonfly on the leaves basking in the sunshine.  I rushed back to the house, got my camera, came back and it was still there!  Such a difference from photographing bees or butterflies!

It is a Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea) and much more impressive than the little brown damselflies that were in the garden at the same time.

Another find was a mass of these toadstools growing under the debris in a border I was clearing.  Sorry I had no time to find or speculate on a name as there is too much to be done outside at the moment.

I have decided to do more vegetables this winter.  So apart from the usual broad beans, brussel sprouts and leeks, I have added onions, carrots, cauliflower and Romanesco brocolli.  This is just an experiment brought on by following Notre petit jardin Breton.  They make so much use of their garden that I felt I should make more effort.  If the slugs and snails are unkind to me it could be a short experiment and I will stick to the easier option of tomatoes and courgettes in the summer.

I have been harvesting my surprise crop of Goji berries but I am still unable to develop a taste for them.  I decided to dry them as they are usually sold in “raisin” format.  I pricked them first and them set them to dry at a low temperature in the oven.  I managed to get them to look like raisins but they still remained too juicy to consider storing them.  They did taste marginally better.  The birds have not touched them yet.

The birds get pretty spoiled in the garden as Kourosh feeds them every morning and we have gleaned sunflower heads for them from the fields that have already been harvested.  Obviously they taste better than Goji berries.

It must all be a matter of taste or availability.  I have masses of this white erigeron growing all round the paths and walls but it attracts no pollinators.  Then I saw this honey bee feeding on it.  Will she have a problem when she gets back to the hive with the nectar?   Will her sisters say, “Why did you collect that when there are loads of asters out there?”

The Cosmos is still blooming…

and there is still plenty of sunshine to enjoy a break from clearing the borders.  October has been a good month in the garden, so far.

 


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The Death’s Head Moth visits

This is Poppy our largest honey bee colony, at the moment.  We have a muzzle in front of her to protect her, somewhat, from the relentless Asian hornets.  About ten days ago I caught sight of what I thought was a leaf on the floor of the muzzle but on closer inspection I could see it was an enormous moth.  Some bees were on its abdomen and the moth looked lifeless, as if it had given up without much of a battle.

I slid the floor open and recovered the moth.  There was no doubt to the identity of the moth but it was its beauty, even in death, that amazed me.

This is Acherontia atropos, the Death’s-Head Hawk -moth, le Sphinx tête de mort.

Velvet would go part way in describing its coat.  It made me think more of a tiger pelt.  I felt a great sympathy for this creature that has no compunction in entering  bee hives and stealing their honey (as a beekeeper my cheeks redden at this point.)  It has been noticed that four long-chain fatty acids are produced by these moths in the same concentration and ratio as in cuticle extracts of honey bees and it has been proposed that this could provide the moths with a “odour disguise” to escape detection as a non-bee intruder.

Dead moths have been found in bee hives, so whatever ploys are used by the moths, they are not always successful.  I do not think Poppy was duped by the intruder and it looked as if he was being stung by the bees.  The quantity of honey that even such a large moth would consume would not endanger the colony as the visit is a short, sharp raid.

I did call the moth “he” as I do believe he is male as I have found a curious brake mechanism that allows the male moths to couple their front and rear wings to allow greater flexibility in movement for mating.  He should also have fluffy male scent glands but he is so generally fluffy that I cannot say I could identify them.

Both the males and females are of similar size and this one measured 12 cm. (4.7 inches) across the wing tips and 6 cm. (2.4 inches) from top to tail.

Another curious fact about this moth is that it can squeak!  (That is when it is alive.)  There is a short video on YouTube (37 sec.) https://youtu.be/ITh0TgJ8a6Y if you would like to hear it.

I had already coincidentally taken a baby photograph of the moth in August.  Already a beauty, as caterpillars go.

In August I had no idea that I would find an adult in a hive.

They are not a welcome arrival in most peoples’ gardens.

When I invert the photograph the death’s head can be seen clearly and the image has always brought with it fear of evil portents.  The traditional solution is to asperge the site with holy water but Poppy is on her own against the hornets and devil’s moth, let’s hope she is not superstitious.