Monday 28 October 2013

Feeding my bees

Usually I don't need to feed any of my bees before winter but due to the bad weather this year, especially the first 6 months, everything was behind with some colonies swarming as late as July with a corresponding slow build up in colony population strength.

As things worked out it wasn't too bad by the end of August although the honey yield was poor, probably only about a third of what it should have been. Most hives were already well loaded and heavy with honey for the winter leaving all of September remaining to forage the ivy which was abundant this year. Ivy, a much maligned plant, is a great source of nectar and pollen for the bees at the end of the season and plays an important role for a number of species.

However I had half a dozen underweight colonies from late reared Queens and I've been feeding these to boost their population size and hopefully get them up to weight with sufficient honey stores to get them through winter but I'm still left with three that are underweight even now towards the end of October.  

Rremplissage avec du sirop pour les abeilles

The plastic feeder sits over a hole in the top or crown board of the hive enabling the bees to climb up and take the syrup and the clear plastic cap prevents the bees from actually getting in the syrup and drowning. There are many views on what, how and when to feed bees and I make mine with water, sugar, honey plus a small amount of cider vinegar. In an ideal world I wouldn't be feeding any this late in the year and really need to stop before November.

While I was filling the feeders I had a visitor to the hive top, an Asian Hornet. These are still taking bees from the hive entrances even though there are hardly any bees flying now.

Frelon Asiatique sur la couvre cadre

On the good news front an insect that hasn't had a bad year at our place is the Praying Mantis, they go from strength to strength here and every other hive seems have one sitting on it for the last 6 or 7 weeks or so, often right on the hive entrance. Of course Mantis like everything else have to eat and they don't eat many bees really, not enough to worry about.

Mante religieuse sur une des mes ruches

29th International Ornithological Film Festival Ménigoute

This week it's  the 29th International Ornithological Film Festival at Ménigoute, Deux-Sevres, Poitou-Charentes and I'm really looking forward to spending some time there on Thursday.

Festival runs from 29th October until 30th November and I should say right from the start it's a lot more than films and however good the films may be it's the other things that interest me, especially spending a bit of time looking, (drooling), at all the optical kit, cameras, field glasses and scopes I can't afford. Not that I can't get by with what I've got but it's like everything else, it would always be nice to have better things and there really are some incredible optics available these days.  Hmmm, best stop dreaming.

I must mention before anything else that the first thing to grab my attention was this stunning old bee "hive" apparently about 150 years of age. I just love this type of thing however impractical it may have been compared to current bee hives. Sadly not for sale.

Inside the large exhibition buildings there were all the stands with goods and services for sale, optical goods as mentioned, seeds for old varieties of vegetables and plants from Association Kokopelli, regional products, producers of organic wines, producers of organic fruits and juices, honey and bee products, cheeses, bee-keeping associations, wildlife tour organisers, cane work, conservation and planting of trees and hedgerows with Prom'Haies, all manner of wildlife and nature books, DVD's and other publications. 

As to be expected numerous Associations, Organisations and other structures connected with wildlife / environment protection and management including the State bodies such as the ONCFS , the Conseil Regional Poitou-Charentes and the Conseil Général des Deux-Sevres were represented. 

The two main Associations for Deux-Sevres had large stands as one would expect. For birds Groupe Ornithologique des Deux-Sevres, (or GODS as it is known), and for everything else Deux-Sevres Nature Environnement.

For the Region of Poitou-Charentes there was Société Française d'Orchidophile Poitou-Charentes for Orchids, the Conservatoire d'Espaces Naturels de Poitou-Charentes and Poitou-Charentes Nature. To be truthful it's all a bit too complicated to explain here but I will put links at the bottom of this post.

I really must give a mention to L'Abeille des Deux-Sevres a Bee keeping Syndicate that provides information and education to prospective bee keepers. These children were fascinated by the glass sided display hive heaving with bees which could also be viewed though a small section of roof that had a ventilation grill and access to water. 

Another special mention is to L'Association pour la Protection des Animaux Sauvages - ASPAS, a National Association that campaigns and uses the legal system to take action against both individuals and the French authorities for breaches of both National or European law. They also provide a service to people that wish to prevent hunters from entering their land and provide assistance if there are "issues".

For those that know France it goes almost without saying that the LPO, (Ligue por la Protection des Oiseaux), Frances largest Bird protection organisation had a large stand providing information, signing up members and selling related books and product

In a large separate section of the exhibition centre there was a section dedicated to what I would broadly call wildlife & nature "art", paintings, sculpture, photography and so on. Some interesting work and much of it a very high standard as far as I can tell!

This is a snip from the winning film The Moor 

However most importantly to me there were a large number stands and even some dedicated areas where they had educational games or other activities for young people to play and learn with motivated adults available to make it fun and interesting. Here's a few photos and I think an appropriate place to end with building the future.

Some Links from this post.
The Festival

Association Kokopelli
Groupe Ornithologique des Deux-Sevres
Deux-Sevres Nature Environnement.
Société Française d'Orchidophile Poitou-Charentes
Conservatoire d'Espaces Naturels de Poitou-Charentes
Poitou-Charentes Nature.

Saturday 26 October 2013

Eyes out for Grues cendrées, (Common Cranes).

One of the more spectacular bird migrations in France if you happen to live on the flight paths is that of the Grues cendrées or Common Cranes as we call them in English. 

The Spring and Autumn migrations are completely different affairs but for several weeks now Cranes have been moving in ever increasing numbers in or through France as part of their Autumn movements BUT this is not a simple migration from A to B but more a gradual, partial, staggered affair with birds wintering at various locations stretching from north-eastern France (Lorraine and especially Champagne) to Morocco with various locations in between. The majority will end up in Spain with most of them in the large wintering areas of Extremadura.  Weather conditions will determine the timing of these movements which can last until December; the only issue is accessibility to food on the ground which is principally the residues in maize fields that have been left untouched following harvest.

Roosting takes place on the ground and is normally on marshy islands or marshy shallows on large lakes where the same site is used year on year. Some such as Lac du Der and Lac de la Forêt d'Orient in Champagne are huge at around 5000 hectares.

The map shows the principle sites in France where they stop over and /or spend the winter.

In west / south west of France where I live the main sites for over wintering Cranes are La Mer Rouge at La Brenne, (Indre) near Le Blanc where some 3000 usually stay and some lakes just south of Bordeaux; (l'étang de Cousseau being the nearest for me), where overall about 28,000 cranes overwinter. One other site to the north of La Rochelle, at the Baie de l'Aiguillon (Vendée) hosts a small number of about 75 in recent years. There are also a number of other smaller lakes that host relatively small numbers of birds some only occasionally. 

Flights of Cranes can be as few as 3 or perhaps more than a thousand together but generally there are between 40 and 250 in a group although there can be many groups following close on each others tails. Spectacular as the flights are, and they are truly a wonderful sight to be seen,  I would highly recommend taking the opportunity to see these birds in the winter in their feeding zones when on the ground if at all possible with their continuous comings and goings accompanied by that characteristic calling, and it's usually that calling that first draws my attention to them as it can be  easily heard a couple of kilometers or more away and it's this constant distinctive calling that easily identifies them for anyone in doubt. This can also be heard when they pass over in the dark as they will fly day and night.

European Cranes reproduce in 17 countries, in order of decreasing importance : Russia, Sweden, Finland, Poland, Biélorussia, Germany, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Turkey, Republic Czech, Denmark, Romania, Britain, France. (very few in the last couple of countries but there are hopes this will improve).

More about the Common Crane can be found here including links.

There are plenty of videos on the web but this one gives a good all round view of them on the ground and in the air.

Friday 25 October 2013

Asian Hornet nest in a stone barn wall.

Just when I thought things would go quiet on the "bee and wasp" front I received a phone call first thing this morning from a lady with an Asian Hornet nest in a cavity in a stone barn wall.

Due to the awful weather in most of France for the first 6 months of 2013 all "wasp" family species have had a bad year with a reduced number of successful colonies and a late start for those that finally got going.

Frelon Asiatique dans un mur en France
This one had grown rapidly in the last 5 or 6 weeks, outgrown whatever space they had inside the wall leading to a requirement to expand the nest outside of the wall. Still very active, continuing to grow and at head height from the ground the nest was becoming a danger to the householder, her dogs and horses. Of course this is also one of those cases with an introduced species where destruction is a necessity especially if there is a likelihood of next years Queens being killed and reducing the number of colonies next year.

Always sad to have to destroy such a beautiful creation and kill the occupants.
Frelon Asiatique en Charente, FranceGrand nid de Frelon Asiatique en Poitou-Charentes,France

As far as I am aware this year, 2013, has produced some of the first examples of Asian Hornets making nests in cavities since their arrival in France in 2004. The usual place has always been in the open suspended from a tree branch or in bushes. Whether this indicates an actual change in behavior or simply a result of the bad weather preventing them from moving the initial nest remains to be seen. Certainly it would make their destruction easier than attempting to reach them 30 meters up a tree.

Information about the Asian Hornet can be found at Asian Hornet in France

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Let's get started

Having built and operated the website planetepassion for many years and more recently Wildlife in France as well as writing the wildlife section for Living Magazine I have often toyed with the idea of a Blog to create a space where I could be more immediate and write more about day to day matters. Now the time has come "to get started", but where to begin? 

Best to start by explaining a little about where we live, our attitude to wildlife biodiversity and the environment in both the wider world and our own little piece of the planet we own and manage. For me achieving maximum species diversity is paramount within the constraints of what would be present or perhaps historically was present in a given region providing those previous conditions can still be met. Evidently it isn't possible to put back heath-land where a city has been built and there are many localities where that type of situation exists which we can only make the best of. Fortunately that wasn't a situation we inherited some 18 years ago when we purchased our cottages and land here in the west of France, even though a large part of our three hectares had been intensively cultivated with sunflowers, wheat, barley and oil seed rape for many years, all regularly dosed with "cides" - (herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and probably any other poisons you can think of). 

First action plan for us and simple to initiate was zero or as near to zero as possible use of chemical products anywhere on the property, house and land, this in itself raises the quantity of species both in variety and population numbers significantly in a fairly short time frame, certainly observable within three years.

Second action plan was to see what was required from our land by understanding what had been historically in the region before the cereal production swept all aside in the 1980's with the "de-bocage", (the removal of hedged fields), to create ever larger fields that leaves very little if any land area uncultivated except for the small woodlands and copses.

Third action plan was to leave most of the land alone to see what happened which turned out to be very interesting with some surprising results.

Fourth action plan was to get set up for bee keeping and get some bees which would also be managed with no artificial substances introduced to the hives other than syrup if required and with the minimum of intervention and manipulation.

Fifth action plan is that nothing is killed or harmed unless deemed totally necessary or by accident. This is strictly adhered to enabling a balanced food structure for species to develop in a natural manner over time.

I'm sure there is a Sixth action plan but no doubt that will reveal itself in time as the points above are revisited and looked at in greater detail.

These two photos give some idea of what we started with in the top photo and how things changed in the first year in the bottom photo.

The most obvious initial growth other than grasses was Creeping thistle, Cirsium arvense. Named in French Chardon des champs, (literally Thistle of the fields), this is a well known robust plant that manages to survive the plow and the sprays by virtue of its deep creeping roots where even a small piece will rapidly spread into several "plants". Interestingly we have found it gradually expends itself if left alone providing the soil is neither feed or disturbed other than superficially. As we were aiming broadly for a poor, sparse meadow type habitat over time this didn't present any issues, in fact that and the grasses helped to take out any excess nitrates and other feeds.


In the Vienne and in many other Departements of France it's legally possible to be ordered to cut thistles of any type and prevent them from flowering to prevent the seeds spreading to other gardens and fields. In practice this is unlikely to happen unless you live in a hamlet and the neighbors complain. In fact it's not unknown in France for the Maire to order a person to keep their garden or land closely cut even on the periphery of a hamlet or village. Some farmers have even suggested that land should be forcibly removed from people that fail to control Creeping thistle. From a strictly wildlife perspective in the right habitat it's a fantastic plant for so many species including honey bees.

The next photo is one of my favorites of Creeping thistle that shows just how sought after the flowers are.

See The part of France we live in for a background to the area.