a french garden

Reflections on nature in a garden in France


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Summer visitors

We are expecting most of our summer visitors, like this hoopoe, but when they arrive it adds a zest to the garden.  I suppose it gives a touch of exoticism to the garden as I have never seen them in the U.K. where they would be very uncommon visitors.  This year we have had a pair in the garden, perhaps they like the hot weather we have been having.

The young green Woodpecker has been visiting us lately and whereas we often here them we see them less often.  Perhaps they are less shy when they are young.

The birds do not have to be exotic to raise a smile, we like to see the blackbirds with their young.

We are pleased when the sparrows have raised their second brood.

The Redstarts keep us amused with their splashing in the water dishes.  They will take off at the end of the summer to the West African Sahel (that’s the bit that borders the Sahara, to save you looking up Wikipedia, as I had to.)

There are also the new finds like this Tussock moth that I cannot remember seeing before.  I think it has a bit of growing to do and it will probably support this growth by munching through some of our tree leaves.  The trees seem to have enough leaves to spare so I am not worried.  Let’s just hope it is not some new species that will now defoliate the entire tree cover in the Charente-Maritime.

When feeling endangered it curls up in a tight ball causing its rear tuft of hair to protrude.  It makes the tuft of hairs look very much like an extremely sharp beak and I am sure it will give most birds and predators pause for thought.

Kourosh found this bright blue beetle on the cut trunk of a tree in the garden.  Very eye catching and easy to find on the web.  It is a Rosalia alpina.  According to what I can find out, the adult can be between 15-38 mm.  So we must have got an extra large sample!

It was a very frisky specimen and I could not get it to stay in place inside my white box.  The larvae spend two or three years growing in dead wood so this is one of the species of insects that you could hope to support in a garden that left some dead wood lying around.  When trees are coppiced or pollarded this provides good sites for the females to lay their eggs, but as these practices are becoming more rare…

Of course, the Dasypoda bees mean summer time too.  I love to watch them bounce around from flower to flower.  Or rather, they are more measured in their flight, it is the flower heads that bounce around as they land and depart.  Soon she will fill up the silky hairs on her back legs with pollen and the fine hairs will be lost from sight amongst the heavy load of pollen.

One of our hives surprised us by swarming mid June.  It was co-operative enough to use the much favoured branch of our quince tree.

This let us get things sorted out quite quickly and the bees accepted their new home.

The young queen, who was left at home to start over and build up a new colony, is having a difficult time to get things going so late in the season.   Still, the departing swarm left her a super of honey so you cannot say that they were not generous.

We are not the only ones to receive visiteurs in summer, the bees get their share too.

 

 

 


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Spring update on the bees

Well, at last the Spring is here (I think!).  I know that because it is now two weeks since we started hearing the Cuckoo.  It is also because the birds have started pairing and courting.

Pair of doves

And… our tortoises have eventually come out of hibernation.

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The  birds we rarely see in the garden in winter, including the green finch

Greenfinch

and the green woodpecker, have returned.

Woodpecker

As for our bee hives, unfortunately we lost one of our bee colonies – Iris – to the Asian hornets last November.  The hornets don’t just destroy the colonies, but weaken them  in autumn at exactly the time that the colonies need to produce the winter bees to keep them warm and stock up with provisions for the winter.  So perhaps Iris was not a strong enough queen to keep up producing enough young to replace the losses.

But we were very lucky.  In this region of France, the Charente-Maritime –  many bee keepers  have lost large numbers of hives this past year – on average more than 50%.  One beekeeper friend near us lost 10 out of a total of ten hives.  Another has lost six out of seven hives.  So we have taken it upon ourselves to give a helping hand to our friends.

The bees maintain a temperature inside their hive of over 30 degrees centigrade,  In February the outside temperature is still low to inspect the interior of the hives, but one can get a very good idea by just observing their coming and going.  If they bring in pollen that is a sure sign that they have brood and need to feed the young.  So by clicking on the link (1 min 07 sec.), I invite you to see what the entrance of one of our hives looked like on 16th February with outside temperature of 7-8 degrees centigrade.  You can also notice three different colours of pollen brought in by the bees.

Strangely, now that the weather has improved the bees do not come out until it warms up to over 10 degrees centigrade.

Our other four hives have survived the winter and emerged as strong colonies, and the inspection in March showed that they have strong broods on three or even four frames in March.

IMG_0144

At the end of March we decided to divide two colonies – Pissenlit (Dandelion) and also Tournesol (Sunflower) – These were our two strongest colonies.

The division of a hive is in theory to expand the number of colonies and also to prevent the almost annual swarming of a hive – although we have found that when the swarm fever sets in a colony, nothing will prevent them from swarming.

One can remove a brood frame with a queen cell, if it is observed, and make a new colony, or one can remove a frame without the queen or queen cell, but containing fresh eggs, and hope that the colony will make their own new queen.

In both hives we found the queen and removed the frame with the queen.  We decided to give away our queens plus  two frames of broods and plenty of bees.  Our friends are naturally delighted and the bees are expanding at a fast rate.  This means that we have now two orphan colonies.  We hope that they will make new queens.  So like expectant parents we just keep our fingers crossed.

We have meanwhile placed a six-frame beehive above the old hen-house to attract any passing swarm.  During the last few years we have caught a number of swarms there.

Hive on the old hen house

The scouts bees have already started coming each day.  So we wait and see what happens this year.

There is plenty of flowering shrubs and flowering fruit trees at the moment for the bees. This little lady has been taking pollen from the Camellia

bee on camelia 1-001

She emerged laden with pollen.

bee on camelia 2

Meanwhile on Sunday 31st March, whilst entertaining an old friend for lunch a large swam arrived on the quince tree at about one pm.

New Swarm March 2019

All thought of lunch was put aside as Amelia and I rushed to put on our bee suits.

We placed a sheet under the quince tree which is full of blossoms.  I shook the lowest branch vigorously  and caught the swarm directly in Iris’s old hive and left her there until the evening to let them settle in.  As the queen was now inside, the rest of the bees you can see below on the outside of the hive just marched inside.  They were really gentle and the operation was very smooth.

This is the first time we have put a swarm directly into a full sized hive, previously we have used the smaller 6 frame hive to collect swarms.  As this was a large swarm we feel it was a good choice.

swarm hived

Quite a few of the bees in the swarm were carrying pollen, which I thought was unusual.  Then on Monday morning at about 9 am I saw the new hive was bringing in pollen.  Again strange as I had placed undrawn wax sheet on the frames and surely, I thought, the bees have not had the time to draw it in order to stock the pollen.  Oh, well, I guess they know what they are doing!  I hope that a more experienced person can give me an explanation.

New Swarm hived

So here we are with a garden full of flowers and blossom and our now five hives.  I hope that the two orphan hives will do their job.  But that is hopefully for another update in the future.

Our Hives Spring 2019

Kourosh


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Honey Bees

It was all the fault of our beekeeper friend Michel who had me hooked on bees.   Every time he visited our garden, he kept telling me: ‘There, you can place a hive…. and over there another….in fact you have room for several hives near the river and just outside the wooded area.’

Looking at the garden through the wooded area

Looking at the garden through the forest walk

In January we bought the first and then the second hive and Amelia lovingly painted them and decorated them.  In a normal year Michel would have given me a swarm, but this was not a normal year, and he had lost far too many of his own hives.  So after waiting and waiting – and I am not a patient man – I phoned all over the place to buy a swarm.  It proved difficult, but eventually I found someone who promised to sell me a swarm, but not before end of May.

Then the first  May Swarm arrived.  I was delighted, especially as it directly entered the little ruchette (six frames mini hive) that I had placed on top of the old chicken coop.  Later in May it was transferred to its permanent hive, now named Cornucopia, because of the horn of plenty that Amelia had painted on it.

Oh, well, I thought that plus the swarm I had ordered we should have enough on our hands.  But the bees had another thought in mind.  One sunny Friday afternoon in early June More bees arrived, this time in the little ruchette above our main house. The second swarm were named Violet, after the little violets that Amelia had painted on their destined hive.

A few days later I set off to my rendez-vous in the Périgueux region to collect the swarm that I had ordered.  Michel accompanied me as I must admit that being actually allergic to bee stings, I was somewhat nervous travelling back the 220 km (135 miles) with a car full of bees.

It was an idyllic spot for anyone and a lovely place to keep bees as well as his horses.  The rolling hills where surrounded by forests and farmlands.  He told us that he had in all over 100 hives.

Beekeeper's house near  Périgueux

Beekeeper’s house near Périgueux

We loaded the hive with the promised black bees (Perigueux Noir) and drove back full of excitement.  Back at home we opened the hive and let the bees discover their new home.  However, our excitement somewhat evaporated as we discovered that the bottom board was not fully aerated and in our hot summers that was something that we urgently needed to change.

We had to wait a couple of days for the ladies to settle down.  Then Amelia and I armed ourselves with the necessary tools and the smoker to investigate the hive properly.  The second problem was that lifting the top outer cover, we saw that the top inner cover consisted of a piece of very old plywood simply nailed to the brood box.  Carefully I removed the nails and lifted the entire hive to place it on a new fully aerated bottom board.  When we lifted the body of the hive, one of the frames dropped through the bottom of the hive.  We had no choice but smoke the poor creatures and open the hive.  Once we lifted the old frame, we saw that it was very old decayed Langstroth frame with the support ends rotted away.  We also noticed that there were no waxed sheets on the frames but the bees had started making their own honeycomb wax.  We did what we could, namely replacing the broken frame with a new waxed one and replaced the bottom board and the top inner as well as the outer cover which also was broken and looked like a museum piece.  So the moral of the story was never buy swarms from strangers, no matter how friendly they might appear.

Nevertheless, we named this hive of black bees as Poppy as we had noticed them returning to the hive with black pollen, distinctive of the poppies in the garden, as well as yellow pollen.

A week later Michel came over so that with his experienced eyes we could inspect the ruchette Violet and see if they could be transferred to their permanent home.  We also hoped to examine the new arrival from Périgueux, as it was clear to us that they were not a big colony.  Task one was accomplished very successfully and we even managed to see her majesty Queen Violet.

Queen Viollet

Queen Violet

She had already made a sizeable brood on at least two of the frames.

Violet - 1st Inspection

Violet – 1st Inspection

The inspection of the hive Poppy confirmed our original feelings that the colony was indeed quite small.  The good news was that they had started making a small area of brood cells on an old frame.  Nothing too exciting, but not having seen her queen we had to content ourselves with that.

Poppy first Inspection

Poppy first Inspection

We scheduled a second inspection a week later.  That proved much more exciting.

Firstly the hive Cornucopia was doing so well that we had to place a honey super on the hive.  Opening Poppy we saw that indeed there was a sizeable brood area on at least two frames.   Although we had placed a ruchette on the old chicken coop in case we had to replace Poppy, things looked more hopeful for Poppy.

Poppy second inspection

Poppy second inspection

Violet was doing admirably with classic areas of brood cells  on both sides of several frames.

Violet second inspection

Violet second inspection

She was duly transferred frame by frame from her ruchette to her beautiful new home

Violet transfer to hive

Violet transfer to hive

We returned towards the house when I pointed out to Michel that there were a fair number of bees again around another ruchette on the old chicken coop.  Michel walked closer for a closer look: ‘You have a new swarm’.’  There bees all over the tiles on the roof.

June Swarm

June Swarm

I had promised Amelia that I will not keep more than three hives, but at the end it was not me that chose the bees but they chose us.

We have chosen the name of Sunflower for the newly arrived swarm as the arrived the week that the sunflowers have opened up.

L to R: Sunflower; cornucopia; Poppy; and Violet

L to R: Sunflower; cornucopia; Poppy; and Violet

The forest of sweet chestnut trees are less than half a mile from our garden and they are still in flower; the sunflowers in the field across the road have not yet opened, but other sunflower fields have opened only just a few hundred yards away.  Around the numerous forest, not far, there are plenty of brambles in flower.  So, I hope that we can keep our bees happy and more importantly healthy, and I hope that they will like Amelia’s French garden as much as we do.

– Kourosh