a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


What’s happened to the sunflowers?

Earlier this summer when I started putting the supers onto two of my hives, our beekeeper friend, Michel, told me that once the sunflowers opened across the road from us, the honey bees would fill one super in just one week.  Well, the sunflowers have certainly opened across the little road to our hamlet, only a few metres away from our four hives.

Looking at the hives through the sunflower fiield

Looking at the hives through the sunflower field

So, during the warm mornings, Amelia and I eagerly went in search of the bees across the road.

Searching for honey bees in the field of sunflower

Searching for honey bees in the field of sunflower

Amelia walked right through the field but only found a few bumble bees and there were very few honey bees on the sunflowers.

What I have now discovered is that Michel was right and the honey bees did indeed collect loads of pollen and nectar from the sunflowers – however, the emphasis is on the past tense.

The disc florets in the centre of sunflowers have both male and female parts and each female part has a single ovary that develops into a seed.  It appears that the new varieties of seeds planted near us now are self fertilising type, thus eliminating the need for bees to fertilise the plant.  More importantly, these new varieties have a much longer neck to the style and as the nectaries are situated just above the ovaries, this makes it difficult for the honey bees to collect the nectar. So, although the sunflower field does look very pretty across our land, it does very little good for our bees.

On my visit next day, however, I did see a much pollen smothered bee homing in towards a sunflower.

Bee on sunflower

Bee on sunflower

She did look so pretty and I was fascinated to watch her rolling the little reddish ball of pollen on her hind legs.  I managed to take a short video clip of her.  If you would like to see it, please click here.

Nevertheless, we are lucky that there are a variety of flowers around us, as the supers  we put on two of our hives look well on the way to being filled.

So after all there was a happy ending despite the lack of nectar for our honey bees. – Kourosh


Special Mission

Last Saturday night I went on a special mission.  Being me, I was very excited about it.  But to begin at the beginning it had all started when I was contacted by the Observatoire des Vers Luisants by email in early July asking me if I had seen any glow worms in my garden this year because I had let them know that I had seen at least one in the summer of 2012.

As it so happened my husband had spotted one in the garden the day before we received the email.  I was able to reply that we had already had a sighting in the garden.  There are two possible insects that could emit light in the evening, the fireflies or the glow worms.  What we have seen are glow worms.

1-Glow worm 1

This is a photograph taken in 2012 from a post “It is a matter of perspective”.  I did not think to take a photograph this year.

When I responded to the enquiry that we had a sighting in the garden, I also indicated that I would be prepared for any “Special Mission” that might be forthcoming.

Last Friday I was contacted by telephone and asked if I would be able to follow a given route from the house between the 24 and 26 July after sunset.  This is the first time I have taken part in one of these “Citizen Science” projects and I was delighted to agree.

I duly received my map which showed me a route from the house towards the village for about a kilometre.  I was very pleased with the route because it was exactly where we had seen the glow worms in previous years.  The 24 th. was a fine summer evening and we decided to make a supplementary search in the garden before starting on the given route.   I am not used to wandering in the garden at night with no light so I managed to fall over the wires holding up the vine posts – I hadn’t expected this mission to be so dangerous!

Whether by coincidence or not, that night the street lighting in our little hamlet was not switched on. Despite walking the route slowly, one behind the other, we did not spot any glow worms.  Even the glow worm we had seen in the garden was not there.  We were very surprised but posted our zero count as every result is important especially a negative one.  We have had an extremely dry period and the edges of the road had been closely cropped in June leaving hardly any vegetation.  I do not know whether this would make a difference but I added it to the comment section of my return.

Do you see fireflies or glow worms in your gardens?


Underground Asian hornet nest – “Nid de frelons asiatique souterrain”

I apologize that this post is less about garden more about bees and it definitely carries a warning as it is not for the faint hearted.

During the past few days our precious honey bees have been attacked by asian hornets – frelons asiatiques.  I noticed it first when I saw a huge agitation around the hives.

Cornucopia with my bees landing strip

Cornucopia with my bees landing strip

Amelia stood guard yesterday and the day before with a butterfly net and on each occasions trapped and destroyed four or five asian hornets, some  were trying to enter the hive.  Altogether she must have caught a dozen hornets over the past few days.  It is worth mentioning that despite their size, the asian hornet is not particularly aggressive towards humans and mainly is interested in catching bees near the hive, cutting their head and taking the body to feed their larvae.  Sometimes they enter the hive and take bee larvae for the same purpose. A full colony of asian hornets in season can considerably weaken and even destroy a bee hive.

Normally the asian hornets are a problem in this region during August.  But yesterday I was working along what we have named our forest walk next to the river Seudre.  I noticed a couple of asian hornets landing on the steps I had created.  The steps are made from hollow breeze blocks.

Steps in the forest walk

Steps in the forest walk

There was no mistake that they were Asian hornets entering and leaving an underground cavity.Asian hornet going into underground nest

Asian hornet going into underground nest

Searching the internet there is a considerable amount of information on the asian hornets in France and their nests in trees.  I found no information on any underground nest.  However, what I am beginning to believe  is that the hornets do make a small nest underground at the beginning of summer where new hornets are raised, presumably as future queens.  Later each can develop a new larger colony in trees.  Britain has been so far spared by this new menace to bees, as was France before 2004.  The  asian hornets are moving north and there might not be too long before they also enter Britain.

Operation destruction had to be put in place when night fell and hopefully all the hornets had returned to the nest.  This consisted of first placing straw and sticks on the site and setting fire to it.

Kitted in my bee suit and armed with the propane burner used normally for destroying weeds, I went into battle.

Burning the nest of asian hornets

Burning the nest of asian hornets

Then we turned the stepping stones over to find the nest and then placed more straw on it and in the hope of burning the area where they nested.

Asian hornet nest inside a breeze block

Asian hornet nest inside a breeze block

The hornets caring for the larvae were there but already overcome by the smoke and heat of the fire.

Asian hornet nest underground with the hornets

Asian hornet nest underground with the hornets


The night had fallen and it was already ten o’clock, but my next move was to install hornet guards at the entrance of each of the hives, whilst the hives were quiet.  The guards were there, but they were quite gentle.

This morning I went to check that the hornet guards were not too much hindering the bees leaving and entering the hives with pollen.

Cornucopia with hornet guard

Cornucopia with hornet guard

All appeared well and I could see lots of yellow pollen brought in from the fields of sunflower across the road.

I checked and removed the partially burnt out hornet nest and saw the clear papery nest with its pointed back where it was attached to the breeze block.

Underground nest of asian hornets - Frelon asiatique

Underground nest of asian hornets – Frelon asiatique

The steps to our forest walk has to be rebuilt.

The Forest walk afte destruction of the steps

But should I use breeze blocks again?  That is a question that requires some thought.  Meanwhile, I am hoping that our bees have been given some respite from the asian hornets.

– Kourosh



May Swarm


The garden in May is beautiful.

Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)

Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)

The old favourites are back.

Madame Isaac Pereire and bumble bee

Madame Isaac Pereire is flowering and welcoming the bumble bees.

Male Bombus praetorum in Cotoneaster

I see more and more male spring bumble bees so I know that their season must be finishing.

But this May was special as my husband had decided at the end of last year that he wanted to keep honey bees.  Over the winter preparations began.  We were enrolled in the bee-keeping federation of the Charente Maritime and their classes for beginner bee-keepers to start in April.  In the winter two hives were bought and painted and decorated by me (at least they could look good in the garden!).

Painted hives

Then came the bad news in the spring that the bee population had been decimated over the winter.  Long-time bee-keepers had never experienced anything like this.  So many hives were opened in spring to find dead bees and unconsumed honey supplies.  The winter had not been severe or overly long.  With no natural causes apparent the bee-keepers suspected pesticides.  Was it a good thing to start keeping bees in an agricultural area growing rape and sunflower?

Our friend Michel lost 27 of his 30 hives but has set out to continue and build up, so my husband, encouraged by Michel, decided to continue but was unable to source any bees in April – more experienced bee-keepers had booked up available bees from companies before him.

In April, under Michel’s advice, a ruchette or small hive was placed with its entrance facing the south on top of an outbuilding.  Michel had provided a lure of old comb and the inside was rubbed with “Charme d’abeilles”.  I remained sceptical about their efforts although the ruchette was being visited by bees.

On the ninth of May I was weeding in the back garden and an amazing noise of buzzing bees alerted me to the incoming swarm.

4.37 sky view

I rushed inside and grabbed my camera.  At 4.37 p.m. the sky over the outbuilding was full of bees and they looked as if they were heading to the ruchette.

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The ruchette has only a small entrance hole and the bees appeared to be entering still at eight o’clock in the evening.

Not quite believing his new status as a beekeeper my husband went happily to bed to rise before sunrise and bee flying time to block their exit and transfer them to their new situation at the bottom of the garden.

10.5 Ruchette in place

Michel provided an almost compatible feeder and advised on feeding them a 50:50 sugar solution to settle them into their new home.  Moss had to be added to the water feeder to help them access the water safely.

Ruches and ruchette

Bee watching has taken up a lot of my husband’s time as he checks that they are still there and watches mesmerised as they fly in and out.  Such excitement when one returns with pollen on her legs!

Then a week later I notice scout bees patrolling our house roof as they have frequently done in previous years (see Uninvited Guests).  The now experienced swarm catcher leaps into action and a second polystyrene ruchette, similarly lured is placed on top of our dining room roof and accessed from the front garden.  The considerable interest in our tiled roof is transferred to the ruchette but the weather clouds over and no swarm results.  However, the bees have not renounced their interest before we had to leave on holiday to join my daughter and family.

10.5 Ruche

Michel has promised to look after the bees while we are away.   What shall we find when we return?  I think May can be a difficult time for gardeners and bee-keepers to leave home.



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.


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


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


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.


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.  


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.



Amphibian emergency escape route installed

I have posted several times about our old well that is just outside our patio doors (The old well, The well in winter, Well shock).  I had always considered it a good environment for the newts, frogs and toads that appeared to be making their home there.

I was, therefore, quite upset and resistant to a comment that suggested that amphibians could be trapped inside the well.  However, as confirmation of this possibility came from Arc Trust , a respected amphibian and reptile organisation, I took heed.  I could not bear to think of harming the very creatures we are so fond of.  However, I would like to point out that I have never found any remains of animals in the well.

Certain creatures such as toads and lizards can fall down straight sided pits and be unable to climb out.  Examples of such pits are drains, that you frequently see by the roadside, meter pits, external basements and old wells.  Wildlife organisations have been trying to highlight the need for the placement of materials to allow the animals to escape.  One of the most promising materials is a capillary matting called Enkamat which is actually used for erosion control, among other uses.

enkomat matting in well

In the interim period I had placed a very bendy branch which I had notched at the suggestion of Tim from Art en Saule.  I think I will leave the branch in place now that there is free access and exit for all.

The netting dropped over the side easily.

Enkamat netting

This closer photo shows the 3D nature of the matting that provides a good grip for toes.

secured on grill

The grill was then replaced on top of the matting and the matting attached to the grill with a plastic garden tie.

bottom of well

Yesterday was cold and any well occupants were not to be seen probably tucked up in the crevices.

I would also like to thank Susan of Days on the Claise who (as always) has supported me with extra information and the benefit of her wide experience with the natural world.

In addition, I would like to recommend to anyone who would like to learn more about amphibian and reptile conservation to visit the Arc Trust site.  I am particularly grateful to all the help Peter Hill the South Wales Habitat Creation Officer has given to me enabling to make a habitat safer in France, which is a bit outside his area.


I’d like to think all the reptiles and amphibians in the garden are as happy now as this Mediterranean tree frog (Hyla meridionalis).  I took this photograph a few years ago in March, the garden is not as green as this, yet!


A small event

Sometimes the smallest event can trigger a chain of events that seems to take on a life of its own.

Flock in distance

I was walking near the house last week when I saw an unusually large flock of small birds.  Luckily I had my camera but I soon had a glimpse of colours and had a good idea of what they might be.

Cropped flock

The closer photograph is not good, as I do not have a telephoto lens (I don’t really need a telephoto lens, but then need is a strange word).  However, it is perfectly good enough to identify the birds as goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis).  They were eating the seeds of a funny plant.

April 2013

This is a photograph of the same field, only a few yards away from our house, that I took in April 2013.  It looked beautiful at that time of year covered by these red flowers.  However, the bees did not find them particularly attractive so I lost interest in them without being able to find out what they were.

Sorrel seed head

This time the Goldfinches prompted me to take a closer look at these plants whose seeds were providing their meal.  Usually, it is the flowers that make a plant easy to identify but here it was the seeds that gave me the clue.  It reminded me of the dock seeds I used to collect and give to the budgie when I was young.   Dock and sorrel are closely related and belong to the same genus – Rumex.

Sorrel leaves

The leaves are not so broad as the dock that I knew but this led me to identify the plant as a type of wild sorrel. That rang a bell as I had just discovered the wild version of what everybody around here seems to grow in their garden.

Annie's sorrel

My next stop was to compare the wild sorrel with the cultivated variety and I was confident that my neighbour Annie would have a good patch.  She did not let me down and her sorrel looks much more tempting to eat than the wild variety.  I asked her what she used it for and she told me she uses it is sauces and that it also makes a very good soup (although I might add anything Annie makes is very good.)  I told her that I had seen the goldfinches in the field eating the wild sorrel seeds.  She said that reminded her of when she used to go to school in Normandy and that she would pick and eat the wild sorrel leaves as she liked their tart taste.  The local name for them in Normany was “surelle”.

I was not familiar with sorrel before I came to France but in this area everybody seems to have it in their vegetable garden.  I got so tired of confessing that I did not have any sorrel in mine, that the last time this happened I came home with a couple of plants wrapped up in some newspaper.  At least I will be able to hold my head high now that it is established although I’ve no idea what I’ll do with it.

My sorrel

My sorrel looks different from Annie’s sorrel.  Apart from the old leaves looking generally tattier the stalks are redder. It is not really surprising as there are so many different species of sorrel.

While checking up on its uses, and it has many medicinal uses, I noticed that the leaves were a favourite food of the caterpillars of the Small Copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaeas).  So that also explains why I find them sunning themselves in the garden in the summer.

Small copper, Lycaena phlaeas

Another unconnected fact is that in French argot  “avoir de l’oseille” means to have money, in the sense that “plein d’oseille” would mean loaded.

But I digress just as the view of the flock of birds made me digress.




Well Shock

While in the U.K. over Christmas I received a comment on an old post “Water, water everywhere…” from last February 2014.  Paul wrote:

The amphibians that end up in your well are trapped, in a short space of time they will drown, it would be good if you could help them out via a long reach net of maybe have some sort of ramp in place, they are certainly not in their element in there as you suggest. I would also suggest that you put some polystyrene sheets ( floating) 18 inch x 12″ in the well the animals will climb on them, and you will have fewer drowned amphibians.

Best wishes


There was also a comment from Peter on my 2012 post “The old well” :

Hi, interesting images, thanks for sharing. The amphibians are getting trapped in the well, and by far the majority of them will be unable to exit themselves. Some will have been trapped for longer than others, and individuals may tuck themselves away in unimaginably tight spots, undetected for the majority of time. The pair of common toads in the image with the marbled newts are both underweight, and the fire salamander depicted in the final image is emaciated — amphibians are also capable of surviving incomprehensively (at least for us) long periods of time without food, this particular individual may well have fasted for a whole year. For the amphibians, removing them and placing them in thick vegetation that has connectivity to further suitable habitat would be their best chance of survival. Taking measures to install a smooth sided barrier fence with an external overhang to prevent amphibians continuing to be trapped in the well would be the way forward for the amphibians. Best wishes, Peter Hill (Habitat Creation/Restoration officer, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust) http://www.arc-trust.org

I must admit that I was panicked but surprised at the comments.

One point that I am not sure that they have understood is that it is an old well that has been filled in by previous occupants of the house and the first time that we had seen an appreciable quantity of water in the well was during a very short period in 2015 due to exceptional weather conditions.  Even then the water was not deep and there were refuges for them.  We have never seen any dead bodies nor have experienced any smell (it is just beside where we take our morning coffee on fine days.)

Covered well


The well is safely covered but that was to protect humans entering and exiting the house.

However, we have acted on Peter Hill’s advice and my husband went down the well today.  Yesterday, after a cold period the temperature was up to 14 degrees and today it was the same so we thought it safe to save the toads.

Frogs and toads

There were no bodies but there were two common toads, a frog (Rana dalmatina, I think) and lots of marbled newts (Triturus marmoratus).

Hyla meridionalis

And a Mediterranean Tree Frog (Hyla meridionalis).


What was very interesting was that among all the debris at the bottom of the well my husband noticed two or three worms!  If my husband could spot them, I imagine that the other creatures are better adapted to find such juicy morsels than he is.

Well ferns

It is also not possible to show you how many “midges” or very small flies were active amongst the lush growth of ferns on the well sides.  In addition, I saw a large white moth make an exit as we lowered the ladder down the well.  I am not convinced that the well is such a barren an environment.


The two toads and the frog have been removed.


They have been released into the end of the back garden near the river Seudre.


I was very impressed by the camouflage – it was certainly, now you see me, now you don’t.

Well with log

The well has now been fitted with a log escape route.  There is no need for floats as the level has never been high enough, even in extreme conditions, to leave them completely stranded.

There was no sign of the Natterjack toads or the salamander that we had previously seen but thankfully no bodies either.


I just wonder if the frog is making a break for freedom or will it end up crushed on the nearby road cursing the humans that turfed him out of his safe resting place.



Winter begins

Winter has finally arrived.  The drop in temperature over just two days felt brutal.  We have gone from mild, sunny autumn days to dull days with temperatures sometimes in the single figures (Centigrade!) – still no frost yet.


My liquidambar has lost most of its leaves now without producing spectacular bright red leaves but yellow/orange is good too.  I’m pleased with the Cornus alba doing its bit on the left to add a bit of red for the autumn.


I planted four scarlet willows (Salix alba “Chermesina”) to provide a blaze of red stems in autumn and through winter.  Well, they are not quite there yet but I am pleased that they have all taken and seem to be quite happy.


The fuschias are still providing lots of colour and don’t even look tired.


But I still come back to the humble cotoneasters for the best show.

missing berries

And I noticed today that the berries are starting to go missing so they also provide a good winter food for the birds.

cotoneaster in front garden

A flash-back to last May and the cotoneaster in the front garden and you can see what a useful plant this is.

bumble on honeysuckle

It was only nine degrees in the garden this afternoon but the bumble bees were happy on the winter flowering honeysuckle …

Bumble on salvia

and on the salvia, but it was too cold for the honey bees to put in an appearance.

bumble bee

I enjoyed watching, what I think must bee a buff-tailed queen, sunning herself on the ground where she was sheltering at the base of a plant.

queen grooming

She had been feeding on the winter honeysuckle and in consequence got covered in pollen and felt the need for a good grooming.  She will not need the pollen until next spring when she starts her first nest.


This morning my husband grabbed his camera and shouted for me to look at what was on the patio.

red partridge

This is a red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) and a new visitor to our feeding station.  I had a good idea where he had come from.  I checked with my neighbour and not too long ago partridges had been released for hunting purposes.

red partridge

However, this is a lucky one – well for the moment- the season is closed now and it will be safe to eat at our bird feeder.  Mmm. just how much wild bird food can a large partridge eat?



The pompier called

Yesterday a sapeur pompier rang the door bell and I hurried out to open the garden gate as he stood outside in the sunshine.  He saw my bemused look and waved a copy of the calendar he was carrying.  The penny dropped and I invited him in explaining that I was having a hard time realising that Christmas was approaching, he joked  that they had decided to come round in the spring this year!

Just before Christmas every year the pompier comes with his calendar and you make a donation and receive the calendar.  It is all in a good cause for their benevolent fund.  Out of our local group of about thirty but there is only one full-time professional, the rest are part-time volunteers.  In France they are more than just fire fighters and are often the first at the scene to deal with any accidents.

This means that we will be receiving another calendar soon from our factrice or post lady who provides a brilliant, personalised service but this time the thank you will go straight to her.

It has reminded me that Christmas is fast approaching and I still have not made my recommendation of Dave Goulson’s superb book “A Buzz in the Meadow”.  He is very readable author and he will tell you more about bumble bees and other insects that you really didn’t realise you wanted to know about – until you read his book.

Goulson Buzz

For me the best bit was to find out more about his house in France and the surrounding thirteen hectares of land he hopes to make into a wildlife preserve.  He writes candidly about his unorthodox renovation of the house and the species rich environment he has uncovered.  The saddest story was when he decided to share his passion for butterflies with the locals by advertising a guided walk.  No-one turned up except one English lady and her daughter who lived near by.  I have to sympathise with him as I meet very few local people who are interested in what the British call, in general terms, “Nature”.  Some have worked all their lives in the open and never have noticed bees or dragonflies and shy away from snakes and lizards.  Enjoying nature seems to mean walking outside and enjoying the scenery but not being aware of life – plant or animal, with the exception of some large furry animals.

Goulson writes that his goal in writing this book is to make you go out and get down on your hands and knees and look.  He feels that if we learn to value what we have we will make an effort to preserve it.

Queen bumble bee

I’m sure he would enjoy watching the queen bumble bees visiting my Salvia.

Bumble bee with pollen

I’m sure he would be interested to see a worker bumble bee with pollen-laden legs on the Salvia in this picture taken on the 26th. November 2014.

bumble bee robbing nectar

The pollen laden legs mean that somewhere there is a bumble bee nest that is still active and raising young.  However, next week the temperatures are set to drop and it looks as if winter will begin in December.