a french garden


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A barbastelle in the atelier

I suppose we should have realised from the time of year that we could be receiving a visit from our friendly Barbastelle bat (see https://afrenchgarden.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/many-happy-returns/ and https://afrenchgarden.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/a-furry-visitor/).  We have been looking around the front shutters but when Kourosh went out to collect some logs from the outbuilding the other day he felt a bat fly around his head and he noticed where it settled.  The bat is quite small with a body about six centimetres long so I have marked the spot where he roosted on the wall at the corner of the joists as that is not visible from the closer photograph.

Atelier

We are not sure whether it is the same bat that comes every year but in view of all the rain we have been having this looks like a much better choice of roost.  It looked very cosy between the outside wall and a supporting bean of the mezzanine deck.  Much drier than behind a shutter!

However, I note from the book “Le Guide des Chauve-souris en Poitou-Charentes” by Olivier Prévost (2004) that small colonies have been found behind the shutters of abandoned houses.  Another place that they use frequently is the lintel space on doors of barns.

France is fortunate to have representants of thirty one of the forty one European species of bats.  The Barbastelle is a threatened species if viewed on a European basis but not rare in this area.  However, they have a tendency to move around and shift their roosts depending on weather conditions so they are not easy for researchers to keep an eye on.  They are also found sheltering in the abandoned quarries of Poitou-Charente.

It eats mainly moths of the type that would be found flying in dry leaves and litchens in wooded areas and its natural roosting spot can be presumed to be cracks in trees.

Barbastelle in atelier

So the Barbastelle (Barbastella barbastellus) is not just a pretty face but an important link in the health of the European forests.


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New home for an old trunk

It all began some eight years ago.  The large building next to our house was always called by the previous owners the atelier, so Amelia and I have kept that name.  It is more than a barn.  It stores all our garden furniture, the ride-on mower, the wood for the fire place, and a variety of objects that Amelia keeps asking me to throw away but I tell her that they might come handy someday!

Most years we have had a variety of birds nesting inside it, including wrens, redstarts, and house martins.  But some years ago I noticed a barn owl flying in and out late in the evenings.  I love barn owls and decided to find out how I might be able to give it a home. Many sites including the Barn Owl Trust in the UK have advice on how to build and erect a barn owl nest.

I looked for a simple way to erect a nest, and eventually I found an old trunk in the local charity depot called Trois Francs Six Sous.  This totally volunteer run organisation operates locally but is similar to the Emmaus charity stores.  Emmaus is an international solidarity movement founded in Paris after the war by the Catholic priest and Capuchin friar Abbé Pierre to combat poverty and homelessness.  The expression Trois Francs Six Sous refers to something that costs ‘next to nothing’ or as we might say in England ‘tuppence’.

The old chest itself proved an interesting item for me.  In it I found a little booklet about 5 cm long with one side the face of someone unhappy and the other a happy face.

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It was a small saints day calendar  with the first page indicating the year of its publication.

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I have no idea of the exact age of the trunk, but I would guess that it is easily over a hundred years old.  It was beautifully made with two bands of material on the outside.  I was pleased that I could give it a new life.

I cut a square hole at one end of this chest and one third along the chest I placed a partition going three quarter up from the side.  By the time I had finished making the nest it was quite heavy and although Amelia was willing to help, I had to lift it and climb up the ladder to fix the trunk  nearly four metres high inside the atelier along the wall.  It was not an easy task!  I just hoped that one day the owl might fancy using it

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The top of the atelier is open to the outside so the birds can easily enter and leave at their pleasure.  After nearly two years of patience, recently I have seen plenty of evidence of the presence of the barn owl with his pellets (not so bad), as well as large white splashes (not so good) in the atelier.

Eventually yesterday I decided to do something that I rarely like to do which is to try to investigate if any bird had actually visited the old chest.  So I put up the ladder and stuck my camera just on the inside at the edge of the partition, and took two quick photos.  The quality of the photos are not so good as I was obliged to use my old Canon Powershot.

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Just beyond the partition, I saw the evidence that I had hoped for:  a single barn owl (tyto alba) or as they call it here effraie des clochers.  

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I understand that it is quite difficult to determine the sex of barn owls, although I hope I will be corrected on that.  This bird has been visiting us for a number of years and I am not sure if he is a confirmed bachelor or not.  I just hope that he is happy in his home and that this year he will find a mate.

Kourosh


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Mea culpa…

Mea culpa, I’ve caught a butterfly in my Asiatic hornet trap!

Indignant but proud the Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera) waits for release.

A little coaxing was needed to encourage an exit from the trap.

Too tired to fly she looked at me accusingly.

O.K. I really am sorry!  Perhaps a drop of sugar solution would set things right?

So you want to be spoon fed!

Now that tastes good!

I’m a bit low on my energy reserves.

This is the best sugar solution I’ve tasted in a while.

At least their tiles match my colourings.

The decor is nice and the cuisine acceptable but now it is really time to go.  The open window becons and I’m off to greener pastures that do not have tempting blue plastic bottles suspended in their trees.

This was a happy ending but it is a downside of the hornet traps.   It has only happened to me once before and I had another successful rescue.  The jury is out at the moment on wide scale  trap use but as I survey mine closely, my decision is to protect my bees.  As it so happens I have not had any Asiatic hornets since the batch in the spring and I have only one trap in the front garden at the moment (just in case).


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Summer approaches in the woods

Everyday sees changes in the countryside.  The warmth, the cold, the rain, the sun all conspire to bring about subtle changes that made no two days the same but there comes a point where our coarse senses remark a change that cannot be ignored.

The vibrant, frenetic days of spring are past and summer is approaching.

I feel this in the woods as the canopy of the trees fills in and covers over, changing the flowers that grow underneath.  A few still linger, like the Asphodel but the Wood Anemones have totally disappeared leaving only their leaves as witness to their presence.

Only an odd violet can be seen here and there along the path.  I shall be sorry to see them go but I took my first photographs of the wild violets in my garden at the end of March so their season has not been short.

The Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum commutatum) is content to stay in the shady areas under the trees and so is just starting its flowering season.

Once open the elegant bells attract the bees and bumbles who feast on the pollen which they carry off in their pollen sacs which become  stunningly white.  I tried to get a photograph but they were too quick for me, trying to manoeuvre amongst the long stems of the Solomon’s seal which are over a metre tall.

I couldn’t miss the swarm of bees over a puddle in the middle of the path.  I had read that bees have a requirement for water but I could not understand what attracted so many of them to the same puddle at the same time.  When I got closer I discovered it was not the water that they were interested in but the mud it was providing for them!

They are Mason bees looking for a supply of mud to seal up their cache of eggs which could be somewhere in the woods in a hollow twig or convenient hole in a tree.  Mason bees belong to the genus Osmia, I cannot go further than that with identification but I do think they have really cute eyes!

The butterflies still accompany us on our walks like this Comma butterfly ( Polygonia c-album) and

the Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta) which always adds colour in the woods.

The Common Heath Moth (Ematurga atomaria) enjoys flying in the daytime in sunny spots but

the Speckled Yellow moth (Pseudopanthera macularia) was a bit more frisky.  It is always lovely to have their company even though they are less appreciative of ours.

These two seem a bit surprised to see each other alight so close to each other when there are so many flowers to choose from.

The Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) is in luxuriant bloom on the edges of the woods and roads and is being visited by an astonishing number of insects.  The bees and bumbles are visiting in substantial numbers.

Predators will always be attracted to to the abundant food supplies of their prey.  The European Hornet (Vespa crabro) did not find any bees on this fly past and rapidly left our presence.  They are an unloved species and their nests are frequently destroyed by humans, however, it is a protected species in Germany and a native European insect.

For me it just does not have the same appeal as a fluffy bumble bee clutching onto the clover flower and  sipping the nectar.


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Keeping focused…

I do try and keep focused on the garden.  The problem is that as soon as I put a foot outside the door I find other things staring me in the face.

Take this bee, he has decided to take up residence in our cellier wall, which adjoins our back door.  If you see a face like that looking out at you, it is impossible to ignore it.  So it’s off for the camera to record it for posterity.  I am not really sure if posterity will care about this bee (Anthophora plumipes, hairy-footed  flower bee)  but I find him very appealing and I’m going to keep my eye on him.

Once I have been distracted I find it very simple to carry on down my distracted path and check out the garden.  The blackcurrants are in flower and I am very excited about spotting a new bee.  This one has a gorgeous auburn hair-doo, a sort of all over Mohican.  He is definitely as fluffy as a bumble bee but has no stripes so I think he might be a fluffy bee.  I thought this would lead to a prolonged identification search on the Internet but I posted it on Flickr in the Bees,bees,bees! group and it was identified as Anthophora plumipes male by eucera – thank you again.

The rain has stopped and I think the bees and bumbles must be famished after the recent heavy rains and high wind, not typical weather here at this time of year.

This leads me to the Wisteria which is providing nectar for a large range of bees and bumbles.

What I notice is that the early bumble bees (Bombus terrestris) are robbing the nectar from the Wisteria.  The Wisteria provides nectar for pollinating insects.  That is the insects are theoretically attracted into the flower for the nectar.  They then brush against the pollen laden pistils and carry the pollen attached to their bristly, hairy body, to another flower.  However, if your tongue is a bit on the short side, the length of the Wisteria flower may pose a problem.  So these bumble bees have solved the problem by piercing the flowers at just the right place to take a short cut to the nectar.

The flowers are left with a hole which may be used later by other insects and bees eager to reach the nectar as rapidly as possible.

They are very welcome to made holes in the Wisteria flowers.  The damage is not too obvious and if there are a few less pollinated flowers there will be less seed pods for me to have to prune later in the season.  I prefer my Wisteria full of life.

Not all the bumbles go for the nectar in exactly this way, this red-tailed bumble bee (Bombus lapidarius) looks as if he has gone the more conventional route of approaching from inside the flower but in fact he has just pierced a hole under the upper lip of the Wisteria flower.

The Carpenter bees follow the same practice.

Never the less, collecting nectar can be a tickly problem.

Dandelions on the other hand are very accessible to all the bees and insects providing both nectar and pollen.

Seeing all the bees foraging on the dandelions has made me rethink my gardner’s attitude to this common , invasive weed.  I now look at the dandelions from a totally different prospective.

Now I appreciate their bright yellow flower that stands out so well against the green in the springtime.

I even admire the seed head with its beautiful symmetry and think of the food it provides for the seed eating birds.  The bees and the bumbles have really softened my heart towards the weeds in my garden, sorry not the weeds, the wild flowers in my garden.

Attitudes can change with more understanding.  When you find a newly hatched and groggy Bombus pascuorum you feel you  have to give it a hand to get started on some Bugle.

I’m not sure if it needed a helping hand but it was fun anyway!


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Walk with me in the woods

Yesterday was cooler and cloudy in the morning but still inviting enough for a walk in the nearby woods.  As a bonus the clouds parted in the afternoon and the sun was warm.  There is always more activity along the way if it is sunny and the photographs seem more full of life.

We saw plenty of life.

The wild flowers are in abundance now.  The wild violets are still going strong but must surely be finishing soon.

New flowers are coming up every day and line the roadside.

Not even the dandelions can leave you untouched as they are the centre of attraction for bees and chafers.

The fresh green of new plants and flowers is covering the still open floor of the woods.

Inside the woods the flowers bloom in the sunny clearings that have not yet been shadowed by the trees which are only starting to open their leaves.

Th wild anemones take advantage of their days in the sunshine before the trees cover them with shade.  But today I notice a special patch with colours I have never seen before.  The wild anemones are usually completely white single flowers but this patch has delicately shaded flowers of pale violet, blue, pink and even some double flowers.

Every walk reveals a new discovery.

The butterflies cross our path.

The bumble bees are delirious with the abundance of Pulmonaria to provide them with nectar.

Sometimes the butterflies take a break on the ground.

I even caught this bumble dozing in the sun on a dry leaf.

So many of the plants are new to me.

This is White-asphodel, Asphodelus-albus.

It is such a majestic plant I find it hard to imagine it growing wild, I am more used to finding daisies and buttercups.  I would love to learn more about the wild flowers in my area.

Some are instantly recognisable like this wild strawberry but others are not.

Each walk brings a new discovery something we have never seen before, like these two bees mating in the Asphodel.  Taking time to watch and discover.  There is so much to discover.


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A trap in the trees – Asiatic Hornets beware

The Asiatic hornet vespa velutina nigrithorax is a non-native species of hornets which has invaded France and gets very bad press over here.  It was first identified in 2004 in France and the story goes that it had stowed away in some pottery that had been imported from China.  The sad truth is that it has arrived fromChina or South-East Asia somehow and has become acclimatised to life inFrance.  Perhaps the exceptionally hot summer that France endured in 2006 helped them to get established.  Each year they multiply in numbers and increase their territory.

A native European hornet Vespa crabro is also present inFrance but it is a less aggressive species.  The main problem is that this invasive species of hornets has destroyed large numbers of bee hives and has added to the problems of the apiculurists already struggling with falling numbers of bees.

The apicultures in this area have requested the public to place traps for these invasive hornets and have sent instructions on how to make home made traps by e-mail contact between friends.  The traps are made from water bottles and lure the hornets with such temping mixtures such as beer and fruit syrup.

I decided to try and was aided (well he made them and I supplied the coffee) by my neighbour.

The plastic bottles are also pierced with small holes in the eventuality that small insects could become trapped.  Both of the hornet species feed on ripe fruit and small insects such as bees but it is the Asiatic that is extremely aggressive and can destroy whole hives.

Luckily, they are of a different colouration and the Asiatic hornet, as its Latin name suggests, has a black abdomen and looks quite dark from a distance but has legs that are bright yellow at their end and the face is also yellow.   The European hornet has a lighter abdomen and a more yellow thorax.  The European hornets are attracted to the light and may come towards windows in the evenings but the Asiatic hornets are not attracted by light.

Now (between February and May) is the best time to put out the traps for the hope is to catch the young queens before they make their nest.  The young fertilised queens do not stay in the maternal nest but over winter in dead trees or inside stone walls or dry vegetation.  As they come out of hibernation they will seek out a nesting place but will also be seeking food.  The theory is that if the cycle can be arrested at this stage each queen destroyed would prevent a nest being built.  The nest are huge and spherical, 40 cm.(16 inches) in diameter by the end of the season holding up to 5,000 hornets.

I saw this video on YouTube, it’s not the Asiatic hornets but the video is brilliant.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v23GFc0KG4c&feature=player_embedded

On a more scientific note and if your French is up to it, this is also an amazing video (see link below).  It shows the hornets waiting to pick off the bees as they return to the hive. Any that dare to land on the hive are attacked by the guards who join in a fight to the death that may take an hour with an uncertain outcome as far as the hornet is concerned.

The bees in Asia have developed a defence mechanism by forming a living ball around the aggressing hornet and by beating their wings they increase their body temperature and so increase the temperature at the inside of this infernal ball to 45˚ C weakening and killing the hornet.  The bees themselves can support this temperature.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbcT_09BP0g&feature=related

Now if you are still with me maybe you can help me with my dilemma.  I put up my traps a week ago but in recent days I have been becoming unsure of their efficacy.  I see a lot of dead things in them.  The theory that the little trapped beasties happily fly off is not holding.

Then today on checking a trap: I find I have caught one.  The dark body and the give away yellow legs and face allow a positive identification.  I have not got her out of the trap to measure her but given that the queen is 3 cm long and the worker 2.5 cm. it is not going to be easy.  Is that at full stretch or curled in her death agony?  Given the start of spring here after a long cold spell it is more likely to be a young queen recently out of hibernation looking for a snack before she founds a colony.

See the video of the “catch” on YouTube.

http://youtu.be/nWiKYfiQVPE

Does this mean I have to build better traps?


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Bees in the willows

The weather today was like summer.  The temperature was in the mid 20’s and the bees were busy.

They were busy in my weeds.

They were busy in the rosemary.

They were foraging in the flowers…

And in the dog violets.

But the biggest attraction was the willow tree at the bottom of the garden.

Listen, they are really high up but you can still hear them.

http://www.youtube.com/my_videos_edit?ns=1&video_id=4eyb_9Vdp1M