Sunflower time

The sunflowers have started to flower around us here in the Charente Maritime in France.

There are some small fields near us.

A little further on there are fields so large that their yellow blends into the horizon.

This year the bees and bumble bees have descended upon the sunflowers and so I presume they must be producing a good supply of nectar although it has been an overall dry season.

The different sunflower hybrids produce nectar with different sugar mass quantity so whether this season will produce an abundant honey supply or not remains to be seen.

For the moment our girls at the bottom of the garden are very busy.

Red Alert – canicule

Our department of the Charente Maritime (plus another eleven departments) have been placed on a red alert because of the predicted high temperatures – approaching 40 degrees Centigrade (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Depending on where you live this may seem extreme or not.

It feels pretty hot to me but luckily we live in an old stone house that will stay cool until this stretch of extreme weather passes. We were booked to go with friends to an evening outside meal with music at our village tomorrow but all outside entertainment has been stopped including outside markets until the weather cools.

The bees are hot and fan in front of their entrances. The trees behind them protect them from the worse of the direct sun and there is insulation under the roof.

Kourosh thought of the old type of coolers that pushed air through wet straw and has sprayed the wooden entrances to increase the efficiency of the bees fanning.

We always leave plenty of water out for the bees and they need it, especially in the heat.

There is a particular crush around this local stone which is limestone and soaks up the water well.

It is not only the bees that appreciate the water and the bath is perfect for a morning dip for the robin.

It is too hot to go walking and too hot at the beach for me. I have checked out the Magnolia tree this morning and the bees had already set upon the flowers with gusto. The flowers do not last a day once they have opened.

Macroglossum stellatarum

The hummingbird hawk moth is back in the lavender.

I find it difficult staying inside and so check out the garden for only short periods.

There are little bees nesting in tiny tunnels in the house walls. I do not know what they are so that will give me something to think about. If you have any ideas please drop me a hint.

Slow down…

The back garden is a mixture of bare trees, leafing trees and blossom.

I don’t want the Nashi and the Accolade flowering cherry to finish.

In the front garden there is plenty of colour even although most of the daffodils have finished.

The Eleagnus umbellata trees are full of flowers and attract honeybees.

I would highly recommend Eleagnus umbellata if you were looking for a fast growing small tree. I bought 10 at 1.71 euros each and shared some with friends. That was in February 2017 and they have grown rapidly. I like them as trees but they can also be used as a hedge. They survive our dry summer weather which is a great plus.

Another beauty is the Malus coccinella, it was bought in February 2020 and is smothered in flowers just now (one of the Eleagnus umbella trees is behind it in this photograph, slightly to the right.)

I do not want the blossom of the Malus to finish but it will eventually be replaced with small ornamental apples that were appreciated and completely finished by the birds in the winter.

The weather continues to seesaw from our recent summer-like temperatures to overnight lows near zero. We took our lemon tree back inside yesterday, we knew that the it would only be a short warm spell at this time of year. Still the frog was able to sunbathe in its leaves some of the days. Can you see it so perfectly camouflaged? (Hint, towards bottom left.)

At least we are having more sun than was predicted but when I look at all the blossoms and flowers I feel like shouting at the garden – Slow down you move too fast, you’ve got to make the springtime last!

Hellebores

If I had only one word to describe the garden today it would be “Hellebores”. I did not do my usual moving of self-seeded plants last autumn but the plants I have moved in previous years are providing so many flowers after another dark, damp week here. The bees love them and gather the pollen until the flower ages and the stamens fall off.

The noisiest part of the garden is near the plum tree, although patches of Hellebore try to rival the plum tree for the highest “buzz” volume.

The plum tree opened up this week but today was the first sunny day that we could appreciate it properly. The flowers are full of honey bees, bumblebees and other pollinators.

We are told that hazel pollen is a very important early pollen for bees. I never see our catkins mobbed with bees like some of our flowers so I was glad to catch this bee this morning with a heavy load of hazel pollen.

Likewise I have recently added Cornus mas or Cornelian Cherry to the garden as the pollen is supposed to be high in protein so I was glad to see the bees on the flowers.

Eriobotrya japonica – will we have fruit this year?
The Viburnum tinus is just opening and will supply pollen to the bees for a long time yet.

Our first Camelia flower opened today. I hope we will be having more sunny days to enjoy it when it is fully opened.

Rain or sun we can watch our birds from the windows.

This plant tray stays outside our kitchen window and is the bathing place for the birds.

Kourosh thinks it is some type of warbler. Its feathers look incredibly downy.

Sunny November

We are still in autumn. The Koelreuteria tree in the front garden has lost its leaves but other trees are still holding onto theirs. When a breeze disturbs them, a snow of dead leaves floats down.

The weather has been fine with plenty of opportunities for walking.

We keep waiting for winter to set in and on Wednesday we had lunch outside on the terrace of our favourite restaurant by the sea. The sun was shining and people were sitting in the sun in T-shirts. We have had several “last” lunches outside this year!

Wednesday brought so much sunshine that this small copper butterfly settled on our Mme. Isaac Pereire rose in complete denial of the calendar date.

During the day the blue skies warm up the garden with strong sunshine.

However, the nights with clear skies bring low temperatures and we have found ice on the birds’ water dish in the morning.

I have decided to coddle my abutilons this year. I swore I would never keep fragile plants in the garden. The abutilons have been with us for years, their leaves freezing in winter and then shooting again in late spring. Now I feel they have been so courageous to survive that they are going to get some help.

We have also got a Salvia leucantha that will need protection soon.

I just cannot manage to do justice to this beautiful flower when I take a photograph. It too will get special attention.

The lemon tree is still outside. It will go into the spare bedroom with gro-lights during the day but I could not deprive it of the beautiful sunshine we have been having lately. We do protect it with a fleece at night if the skies are clear.

Today is cloudy and more autumnal.

I hope nevertheless to be able to still enjoy some more days sitting in the garden drinking our tisane, See who joined us on Wednesday morning.

Potter wasp in October

It is the end of October and the garden is changing into its autumn colours although the weather is mild and many of the plants are late in flowering.

This wasp is working late into the season too.

On the ninth of October this little potter wasp was making probably its last nest on our house wall. I always marvel at the perfect little pot she builds. It is not far from the birds’ water bath so she has plenty of water to make her “clay”, mixing soil and saliva with her mandibles.

I think she is Delta unguiculatum or Eumenes unguiculatum, whichever nomenclature is current. She will lay her egg on the top of her pot and will then bring in a paralysed caterpillar to become the nourishment of the growing larva.

Watch this short video to see her engrossed in her work.

These wasps are not aggressive and have never caused us any problems. In fact, she is a good natural pest control for the garden.

When all is finished it will be covered by more special mortar, to cover one or more little pots. Her offspring will stay inside, metamorphosing into the adult during the cold winter but she will never see them fly. Her work is finished, she will never see them fly because she will not survive the winter.

The offspring will, hopefully, join the flowers in the garden next spring.

A discovery in the small vegetable garden

We have a part of the small vegetable garden that we try to keep for herbs. We have several friends who prefer tisanes to black tea so I grow mint, lemon balm. lemon verbena, camomile and dry them to make tisanes. I sometimes make them for myself, as I would like to wean myself off black tea, but it’s taking some time to change my preferences. We also grow any other bits and bobs and young plants that need keeping an eye on.

It tends to get a bit overgrown with the lavender encroaching and some seedling trees growing faster than expected and the Echium turning into amazing self-seeders. So, with our incredible spell of fine weather I decided to put some order into the plot and get lots cut back.

All went well until late in the afternoon, when it was sunny and warm, I noticed some Ivy bees flying around the border I was trying to straighten!

They looked as if they were trying to find their nests! I had a sinking feeling that I could have destroyed their nesting site.

I marked the edge with tiles and decided that all that could be done would be to cover the area with cardboard and leave it for a year in case the burrows were left intact.

I still surveyed the area daily and then I noticed two burrows.

The first was near tiles placed perpendicular to the edge, so at least all was not lost. The other was not far away but nearer the edge.

When I saw one enter the burrow, I waited patiently and photographed her as she made her exit.

I have been fascinated watching her enlarge the burrow. The proportions of earth that she is removing compared to her size is amazing. The slope of the hole is her total length long.

Now that I know that there are at least two active nests in that area, I will take the greatest of care and protect them until next year.

The female ivy bee is laying her eggs with a supply of pollen and nectar to nourish the future larvae and the adult bees will not emerge until this time next year.

I did see cuckoo bees on the same day I saw the first bees and I took this photograph.

I had already seen two different sorts of Epeolus bees on the asters. These bees are cuckoo bees and target Colletes bees like the Ivy bees (Colletes hederae). They will enter the Ivy bees’ nests and lay their eggs so that their larvae will survive rather than the Ivy bees.

Nature is tough but I will guard my nests of Ivy bees as best as I can.

A swarm in September

It was Tuesday morning (21 September) when Michel phoned and said his friend in Royan had a swarm of bees on his drainpipe. We were all surprised. Bees swarm in the spring. However, all three of us sprang into swarm catching action and we picked up Michel outside his front door and headed to Royan, thirty minutes drive away on the coast. This was the latest swarm Michel had ever come across in his years of bee keeping and we were regaled with bee stories until we reached his friend’s house.

The three of us were lost for words when we saw the “swarm”. There are not enough bees to form a colony that would last the winter. We could not assure that there was even a queen present.

So what to do? They were cold and not flying around. We presumed they would not last long. The ruchette was there so Kourosh picked them up in his hand and gently placed them inside. They accepted their warm polystyrene shelter with good grace.

Once we got them back to the garden we decided to look for a queen. Without a queen there would be no point in going on any further. To our surprise there was a queen! Can you see her?

Here is a clue.

Here she is close-up.

The weather was fine and they seemed to be making a go of it, so on Sunday, Kourosh cracked and stole a frame from one of our hives. It was a difficult decision to make as he took a frame with some brood and young bees which could leave the original hive short for their winter supply of bees.

The frame and young bees were powdered with icing sugar to confuse their odour and then added to the polystyrene ruchette with the queen and her small court. We closed the ruchette and kept it in an outbuilding for two nights in case the young bees wanted to return to their original hive. All was quiet and when we opened their door in the morning there were no signs of battle. They new girls had been accepted.

On Wednesday we were excited to see that they were making the best of the good weather and bringing in pollen. At a guess I would say that it is gorse pollen, there is plenty of ivy around and our other hives are bringing in some ivy and some of this lovely orange pollen.

Kourosh has reduced the entrance to make it easier for them to guard against robbers or worst of all the Asian hornets.

Then on Wednesday our friend Christian phoned to see if Kourosh could help with a swarm that had to be re-homed. The bees had set up home behind closed shutters in an upstairs bedroom with the window blind closed. This would have provided a good spot in the summer and they had gone undisturbed for two or three months as the house had not been occupied.

Sorry about the quality of the photograph, but Kourosh’s flash did not go off.

This was a different proposition and Christian was prepared with frames on which he could fasten the already formed brood nest. The frames were placed in a ruchette and left until nightfall for the colony to enter. In the evening of the same day the ruchette was brought back to the garden, and we are now the adoptive parents of this colony until the spring when they can be moved. Christian will be away for six weeks and the colony will need feeding and protection during this time.

So this is Christian’s ruchette (it will be secured to the poles in due course to protect it from high winds).

And this is the tiny colony. Will either of them survive the winter? The chances are low – approaching zero for ours, much better for Christian’s. It will depend on the weather. At the moment our weather has changed from sunshine and mild temperatures to rain and cloud. We will see.

Reflections at the end of September

The weather has been fine, so we have left the butternut and the potimarron to finish ripening. Some days have been warm enough to enjoy the last days at the beach. Fruit wise this year, it has been poor. Some apples only and a second crop of raspberries that go very well with yoghurt and our new honey.

The Salvias are still adding colour to the garden and at last I was in the right place to get a photograph of our Hummingbird Hawk Moth (Macroglossum stellatarum). We don’t have hummingbirds in France but these day-flying moths are beautiful and hover close to the flowers they take nectar from. Their wings beat at 80 times a second and so appear as a blur in my photograph.

I had a quick look on the net to find out where they lay their eggs and what their caterpillars eat. Their preferred plant food comes from the genus Gallium. I was horrified to find that “Sticky Willy” (Gallium aparine which I loath but I admit does find its way into the garden. I’d have liked to encourage it – but that is going too far. I have been trying to grow Gallium odoratum as a groundcover but so far I have been unsuccessful so this is a reason to try harder.

The cosmos are finishing but the asters are still providing lots of colour and attracting butterflies and bees.

The new queen bumble bees are very grateful for the nectar the aster provide.

This is an Epeolus bee which is a type of parasite or cuckoo bee as it lays its eggs in the nests of other bees. The ivy has just started to flower here and I have seen the solitary Ivy bees (Colletes hederae), it is likely that this cuckoo bee is looking for the nests of the Ivy bees and just stopping on the asters to refuel on nectar.

We have always had to put up with moles but this year they have invaded the front garden. There are even more molehills there since I have taken this photograph. I do not go for perfection in the garden – but this is a plea for help. Is there anything that can be done to dissuade them?

They are usually mainly confined to the back garden – but there too they are running riot. Any suggestions will be appreciated.

Finally, a tribute to the cosmos that are still attracting the leafcutter bees and other pollinators.

Some of the cosmos are falling over while still flowering but also producing seed heads that bring the goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) into the garden. It is well worth having the garden a bit messy and watching these lovely birds.

Is it worth it?

We have always believed that we share the house and garden with the animals that frequent it ( see the old 2017 post “We give nature a home..”. In fact, they share their garden with us rather than the other way around.

A Barbastelle bat had been visiting us since 2016 (see “Return to the garden in March”) and recently we have noticed what we think is a common Pipistrelle bat behind the shutters and sometimes in our garden parasol. I did not think that roosting behind shutters in wet weather was an ideal site for the bats.

In the winter of 2019, Kourosh built and installed a bat box. We looked through the internet to get the best advice we could find on sizes and places and height to mount the box. You can see that the box has been placed on a sheltered spot. The problem is that access is difficult and so we were never sure if it was being used.

Last week Kourosh decided to get out his long ladder and have a look. The tell tale droppings on the ledge underneath the box was enough to reassure us that the box was being used.

After the installation of the first bat house, we realised that it would be difficult to monitor and also I had my doubts about the suggestion of such a high position for a bat box. After all, the bats had chosen the downstairs shutter and quite a narrow installation. Kourosh listened to my concerns and built me a MarkII bat house with the same interior width as the space behind the shutter.

The problem is that underneath the bat box MarkII it is difficult to see any droppings because of the flowers.

Once again Kourosh came to my rescue because there is no way you can see inside a long bat box. He had purchased a Potensic endoscope some years ago before even he had a smart phone. Now he was able to join it to his mobile phone and guess what!

The lower bat box had an occupant which you can see on this short (6 sec.) video.

I think it is a common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus). The best way to identify bats from a photograph is to look at their ears. Like many identifications from photographs, it is not exact and if anyone is more knowledgeable about bats I would love to hear from them. I believe that a more exact identification can be made using equipment that can detect their echolocation cries which are specific to the species of bat and these detectors are used by people who study bats.

Here, in the Charente Maritime, the fields for monoculture of vines, maize, sunflower and oilseed rape are increasing in size as hedges are cut to join up the fields and woodland is removed to create more arable land. This means less habitat for the bats and of course the flying insects that they consume. In addition, modern farm buildings offer less places for the bats to roost.

We were very happy with our discoveries and sat down to enjoy a morning coffee.

We needed to use the parasol because of the sun but when we opened it we found it was already in use.

I’ve turned this image to give you a less upside down image of the bat. Needless to stay, we had to get our sun hats to enjoy our coffee outside! Luckily, the bat does not always take up residence in the parasol.