a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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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.


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Honey, honey

It was first Violette and then pissenlit that we lost in May after they swarmed.  In each case the story was the same.  The colonies came out of winter very strong, but a week or so after they swarmed, the new queens did not manage to develop the colonies well.

I saw a bundle of bees on the grass in front of the hive

Bees around the queen on the ground

On close inspection Amelia and I saw the queen right in the middle, with the bees protecting her.

Bees around the queen

The story seems to have been similar with other beekeepers.  I talked to another beekeeper near us with 44 hives and she had lost 11 colonies after they swarmed.

So, despite the fact that in May and June we collected 10 swarms and gave them all away, we started the summer in our own apiary with only 3 hives.  Unfortunately when August came, the bees were once again attacked by the Asian hornets and I had to instal the modified muzzles with larger grills (1cm x 1cm) in front the hives  to protect them.  The hornets still come and take a few bees, but at least the rest are not so stressed.

our hives summer 2017

The acacias flowered and then the chestnut trees all around our house.  They were followed with the sunflowers.  Just a short distance away I could look through the woods and see the fields of sunflower

view around the corner looking at sunflower field

A short walk and there laid before us the yellow field

Sunflower field 2017

We did check the individual flower heads, and true enough, our bees were busy.

Sunflower 5 bees

At  6.45 am on 21st August Amelia and I removed the frames from the supers of all three hives and placed each of them in a separate plastic box and took them to my friend, Michel’s house for extraction.    Michel was standing in the garden, waiting for us.

The first stage was taking each frame and removing the wax before placing them in the centrifuge.  It was, however, immediately obvious that we had two distinct colour of honey; the darker one containing more chestnut honey was even more viscous.  So we tried to keep the darker honey separate.Honey getting ready for centrifuge

Once the wax was removed we saw beautiful glistening honey.

honey comb ready for centrifuge

Soon after placing the frames in the centrifuge and starting the motor, the honey started to flow.

Honey from the centrifuge

It is something truly amazing about honey.  Depending on the flowers near us, we get different colour as well as different flavour of honey each season.  Even the honey of our friend Michel who lives only a kilometre away  is distinctly different from ours.

Last year we had really yellow honey that obviously a large proportion of which came from the sunflowers.  Only two or three jars are left from last year.  We gave a lot away and now I wish we had kept  more for ourselves as the flavours of the individual honeys are so different and the yellow honey would bring sunshine into the winter days.

Last year’s honey is on the left of the picture below, with this years dark and light honey in jars.  The second jar from left is our spring 2017 honey, which comes mostly from the spring flowers and also the rape seeds.

IMG_0044

At the moment my favourite desert is the natural yogurt that Amelia serves with our own raspberries and a drizzle of this year’s honey.  Delicious!

Yogurt desert with rasberries and honey

So another season has finished and a new season for the bees has started.  We will do everything we can to protect our bees this winter and hope that the winter will also be mild and mellow for  all of you.

– Kourosh

 


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A Straw Poll on the Proposed Development of the Lagoon Field alongside Wilden Marsh

I saw this on Murtagh’s Meadow who had re-blogged it.

It struck a chord.  Natural spaces around us in France are being insidiously nibbled away and natural areas and woodland cleared.

 

The Wilden Marsh Blog

WILDEN MARSH NATURE RESERVE AND THE LAGOON FIELD

Walking through a sunny Falling Sands Nature Area this morning, I looked up at the new houses along the top of the high Lower Stour Valley bank thinking of the marvellous view some of the residents have of Wilden Marsh. I am thankful that the River Stour and Worcestershire and Staffordshire canal is acting as a barrier between the marsh and the housing and residential estates along the west bank. The site of the old sugar factory is now a new combined housing and residential estate in the final stages of completion.

We are now faced with the threat of the Lagoon Field being turned over to residential/industrial use. The thought is terrifying! It would be a huge mistake and very bad news for Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve and the south to north wildlife corridor it is part of. I am unable to come to terms with the fact that this development…

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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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A good spring for Osmia cornuta

Warning! This blog has a high bee content so only if you are interested in the bees as well as the garden :).

Bees in a French Garden

My bee houses have been rewarding me with lots of activity from the Osmia cornuta in the past weeks.  I’m sure they don’t need any help to find hollow nesting places but when they choose my hollow bamboo canes or drilled-out wood I have the pleasure of watching their antics.

The first I know that some bees have hatched is the frantic activity of the males.  This 17 second video gives you an idea of what it looks like.

I admire the tenacity of the males who guard the holes against all comers.  You can get the idea in this 16 second video.

The male can be easily recognised by the little tuft of white hair on his head.  They are around several weeks before the females eventually hatch and then the excitement really mounts.

The mating is not an elegant affair and this pair managed to get stuck in…

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Planting bulbs the hard way

img_7357

This pot has lain since May of 2014 just to satisfy my curiosity.  I had noticed daffodils appearing in the garden where I thought they had not been planted but at the same time I doubted whether they would self-seed.

Bee approaches daffodil.jpg

I have read that bees are not attracted to daffodils but that will depend on the bees, the availability of other flowers and of course the variety of daffodil.

bee-in-daffodil

These pictures were taken in March of 2013, before we started keeping honey bees so I cannot answer for their tastes in nectar or pollen.

Daff seeds 24.5.2014 1.JPG

I do find that some of the daffodils go to seed so in May of 2014 I decided to plant some of the seeds.

bumble-in-tulip

In addition, the bumble bees are attracted to the tulips although some of them make very inelegant exits from inside the tulips, like this red tailed queen bumble bee.  So I also had seeds of a pretty pink tulip to sow with the daffodils.

Fritillary seed head 24.5.14 (2).JPG

Just to make up a threesome, I had noticed that the snakeskin fritillaria (Fritillaria meleagris) had masses of seeds so their seeds went in the pot too.

The fritillaria had been sown for the first time in the autumn of 2013 and flowered abundantly the following spring.  That was the last time I saw them.  I am not sure whether our hot, dry summers killed off the young plants or whether I had not loved them enough while they were flowering.

bulbs-revealed

The seeds in my pot from 2014 had produced green leaves last year but I felt they would need to be planted out this year.  So with a heave I upturned the pot to see what was happening.

bulb-close-up

You must have faith in me here, as the photo is not clear, but there were masses of fritillaria bulblets (top left), six long, thin but very well rooted tulip bulbs (eight seeds had been planted originally) and lots of little daffodil bulblets.

I don’t like planting bulbs but here I was now with lots of little fritillaria bulblets (that I am not particularly keen on) but now I feel totally obliged to give them at least a chance to grow in with the little daffodil bulbs in a patch at the bottom of the garden.

The six pink tulip bulbs have received a preferential treatment and been replaced with new soil in the pot.

So why do I do it?  Just to be sure?  It is so much easier to pick up a bag of bulbs all ready to go.