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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We give Nature a home…usually

We plant flowers that all the bees like – not just the honey bees.

It is not too difficult finding the flowers for us and the bees.

I love Wisteria and it was good to see that a female blackbird has chosen the Wisteria growing on the wall of our outbuilding to make a nest.

Another blackbird has chosen to nest in a cherry tree in the back garden.  (A blackbird nesting in a cherry tree?  Not much hope for our cherries.)

Some accommodation is specially made and it is not only this Anthophora that has made use of this bee house.

The Barn Owls have taken to their adapted trunk high up in the outhouse.

Some accommodation, like the window shutter, is improvised and is a home for the Barbastelle bat.

Of course, good accommodation includes bathing facilities, much appreciated by the Redstarts.

However, when a swallow chose our living room it received a resounding shout of “Out!”, and the doors were firmly kept closed until it had chosen another nest site.


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Saints de Glace

At 7:30 am today 27th April 2017, the temperatures dropped to minus 4.5 degrees C (24 degrees F).  We see around us many vineyards devastated by the frost.  The vines that had just flowered were frozen.

Frozen vinesThe last few weeks of really warm weather (up to 27 degrees C), have advanced the vines 12 to 15 days, compared with previous years, making them more vulnerable to the sudden frost.

The morning papers report that in our department of Charente approximately 25,000 hectares of vines have been damaged – in some areas up 80% of the vine flowers have been destroyed.

There is very little the farmers can do to protect their crop against low temperatures. However, from very early morning some farmers tried setting fire to straw bales near their vines to raise the nearby air temperature.  Others called in helicopters to fly low over the vines, to create turbulence and avoid cold air staying low on the ground.  This managed to increase the temperature by up to 2 degrees.  But sadly even these efforts  were not sufficient to avoid the extensive damage.  

The French farmers as in other parts of Europe believe strongly in the Saints de Glace. The three important are:  St Mamert (11 May), St Pancrace (12 May) and St Servais (13 May).  They say in France: “Beware, the first of the ice saints, often you will see its trace.  Before Saint-Servais, no summer; after Saint-Servais, no more frost.”  There are even those who recommend caution planting fragile plants outdoor until 25th May (St Urban) as a frost can occur up to then.  They say: “Quand la saint Urbain est passée, le vigneron est rassuré.”  When St Urban is passed, the vineyard owners are assured.

Our pretty garden was also touched by the sudden frost.  The potato crop is partially frozen and the lovely lagerstroemia that was so kindly given to us last autumn by Michel and his wife is frozen.

Frozen lagerstoemia

Our hydrangea is well protected against a stone wall, but some of its leaves are badly damaged.

Frozen hydrangea

A few other more fragile flowers and plants have also suffered, but my heart goes to the farmers that for the last twelve months have laboured really hard in their vineyards and have overnight lost so much.

Kourosh


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An April to remember

The one strong feature of the garden in April is the perfume of the Wisteria as it pervades the garden and the house.

Of course, there is the noise of the Carpenter and bumble bees in the Wisteria that is part of April as well.

The Cerinthe is well established in the front garden now and pushes through unbidden each year.  I have a little in the back garden but it is so attractive for the bumble bees and Anthophora that I will collect the seed and throw more in the back garden.

I like to read under the olive tree where the Cerinthe have decided to grow thickly and the noise of the buzz pollination of the bumble bees can be distracting!

April is to watch the fruit trees flower one after the other.

It is to watch the Andrena fulva in the blackcurrant flowers again.

The Camassia bulbs in the pot in the patio have once again opened their flowers providing us with entertainment with our morning coffee outside.  I highly recommend three or four Camassia bulbs in a pot as a sure magnet for bumble bees.  They do not last long but I savour them while they flower.

Another relatively short flash of beauty is the tree peony which is going from strength to strength giving us more of its huge blossoms each year.

But despite all the expected pleasures there are always new discoveries.  This year I have seen bumble bees taking nectar from the white Spirea for the first time.  It is good to know that these bushes that do so well at the side of the garden can also be useful for the bees.

My one concern this April is the lack of rain and the low ground water level in the area.  Watering has now been forbidden until after 7 o’clock in the evening.  Winter and spring is the time for heavy rain here and we have had very little.  I would not expect any appreciable rainfall until next autumn.

This coupled with high day temperatures (often over 25 degrees centigrade) and some mornings with a thin layer of ice on top of the bird bath in the back garden make it an April to remember.

 


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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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A confused spring

For the past couple of days we have had sunshine and temperatures going up to 26 degrees centigrade.  Sitting outside (in the shade in the afternoon) it feels more like summer.

The large plum tree has finished flowering and yet many of the trees like the Ash and Poplar still look skeletal from afar.

The Salix chermesina (foreground) have been cut down to leave pride of place to the Amelanchier.

I never had a species name for my Amelanchier but it is always full of blossom in the spring and I like its branched form.  Unfortunately the bees and pollinators are not impressed.

The peach tree is in blossom and…

the apricots have plenty of green fruit.  However, April can be cold here and frosts can be expected until the beginning of May, so I am not counting my apricots yet.

I have been starting to change the very bottom of the garden into a “Spring Walk”, inspired by Christina her Italian garden.  This part of the garden had been overrun and thick with brambles and ivy and had to be left on its own for many years.  Because of the trees there is little light in the summer but I thought I could introduce some spring flowers.

There were too many daffodil bulbs in the borders in other parts of the garden which had to be thinned out.  I thought that if they had prospered and multiplied with little care in the various borders then they might survive at the bottom of the garden, which is very dry in the summer.  The problem was there is little soil over the tree roots so it was a case of sticking them in during the autumn and covering them up with divots taken from clearing the borders.  Miraculously, they survived and have flowered.  We have also been trying to seed some of the woodland flowers from around us in this area for some years now.

We have been keeping the path strimmed roughly and after the daffodils  finished there was a beautiful path of dandelions.  It is not only here that the dandelions are prospering but all over the garden and over the fields outside.  I have never seen so many dandelions in the spring.  It must seem like manna for the bees and other pollinators.

I now have a request.  The white flowers look like snowdrops (sorry about the photograph but white flowers on long stems are past my photographic ability – just think big snowdrops) but I have forgotten their name.  I have a feeling I saw them in Cathy’s garden some years ago.  I don’t think this should be too hard for you gardeners out there.

Next I.D.!  This has been grown from a cutting from a dubious source.  It is not fast growing but it is very tough and makes excellent ground cover.  The leaves are small – check out the nettle in the foreground for scale.

This year it is covered with little white/pale lemon flowers which the bees like (which is the reason we took the cuttings in the first place.)  It is evergreen and keeps mainly a low profile put it has thrown up the odd higher shoot this year.  Perhaps this is a more difficult one to name?  Any help with the names will be welcomed.

I am always impressed with tough plants.  This picture was taken on the 14 March 2017.  This is my Anisodontea which was still flowering last December although the leaves were starting to go red in the cold and now it has started to flower again!  I think I will try and take some cuttings.

Another new plant is my Lonicera tatarica which is covered in these delicate dark pink flowers.  All the bees like it but they are a bit spoiled for choice with the number of flowers available for them at the moment.

The Viburnum tinus has masses of blossom and is that bit earlier to flower.  We have divided the shoots from our large bush to provide hedging for the side of the garden so we should have even more flowers next year.

I used to love the chrome yellow flowers of Forsythia in the spring and I have several plants but since I have become interested in the bees it has dropped low on my list of favourites.  I see very few bees on the flowers – but there will always be the one to keep you guessing!

Our bat is still with us and is enjoying the sunny weather.  It let me get a good photograph to show the white tips of its black fur.  I had read that the Barbastelle bat’s have white tips to their black hairs but they are not always apparent in the shade.  It flies off on its adventures at dusk, just as night falls.

Just now the moment is around 21.00 hours and we watch it take flight, never knowing if it will be the last time we wave it goodbye – for this year.


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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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