Thursday 25 December 2014

La Réserve Naturelle du Pinail

Human activity has always changed the environment and in this article in 2014 I took a quick look at an extraordinary area that since 1980 has been the first and only State Nature Reserve in the Vienne departement of France, La Réserve Naturelle du Pinail which is located in the commune of Vouneuil-sur-Vienne, (86210). The Reserve is 30 km north-east from Poitiers and 15 km south from Chatellerault where it sits high on the plains between the river valleys of the Vienne and the Clain, at the north of the state owned Moulière forest. The reserve is well worth a visit, especially for people with an interest in Odonata, (Dragonflies and Damselflies) CONTINIUED HERE.


Friday 19 December 2014

Harriers and their protection

It seems such a waste to restrict some of my articles to a limited audience when this blog and the web sites are viewed around the world and so I'm starting to put some on the web site.

This is Harriers and their protection from an article in 2014 for Living Magazine which is an English language magazine covering Poitou-Charentes, Dordogne, Vendée and Haute-Vienne in south west France.

The plains of Poitou-Charentes and Vendée whether they be the high open windswept areas such as those characterises by the areas to the north west and west of Poitiers towards Thouars and Parthenay or the vast low open wetlands of the Marais poitevin and coastline are especially suited to certain birds, some of which are under severe pressure at the European and National level making our region particularly important for their continued well being..............      

Living Magazine


Wednesday 17 December 2014

Thistles and Dandelions

Very few people are neutral when it comes to certain native plants, (or weeds as they are often known as), especially the more robust and common types such as Dandelions and Thistles and I certainly don’t want them in my vegetable or flower beds. However they along with a few other native plants form the most important natural source of nutrition for many of our butterflies, bees, hoverflies and other flying insects growing as they do in a vast range of different habitats and are worth a second thought before trying to chop them down or poison them at every opportunity as is sadly the case in an increasingly tidy and over managed landscape here in France.

Click on pictures to enlarge.

Of course I don’t expect for one minute that anyone will suddenly think “Oh, I must grow some thistles or sow a dandelion patch” especially if they live in an urban environment or in very close proximity to their neighbours but I would like to encourage anyone with some land or with larger gardens to leave a few thistles and to perhaps let dandelions flower for a while just to see for themselves just how beneficial they are and how many different creatures use them.  

I also leave the seed heads to stand on all the plants in our fields which provide food for seed eating insects and birds throughout the autumn and winter months as well as providing a depth of ground cover for the birds that require it.

With this in mind I've compiled a simple web page with some photos of thistles and insects that have been mainly taken on our land.     CLICK HERE


Sunday 23 November 2014

Asian Hornet nest in my apiary - 2014

Cheeky or what?

You may find this a bit hard to believe and it certainly is an eye opener but now the leaves have started to fall Lynne spotted this yesterday when I was out for the day – an Asian Hornet nest actually situated almost directly over one of my hives and no more than 30 metres from several others.Click on photos to enlarge.

So what does this tell us? It tells us that maybe, just maybe, the Asian Hornet isn’t quite as dangerous to honey bees as has been thought. It also tells us to always be very careful when drawing conclusions based on limited third party information that may lack a solid foundation or without knowing all the surrounding facts of any given situation, something we can all learn a lesson from.

Of course this doesn’t mean that they can’t be a problem in some circumstances and it may be that they are modifying their behaviour, adapting to local conditions and taking other prey or simply that one Asian Hornet nest won’t have a serious impact where there are a large number of hives. As I have mentioned many times I have seen Asian hornets present around my hives ever since 2006/2007 without observing them being anything other than a minor irritation for my bees.

This one with the one I removed earlier this year from an empty hive makes me wonder just how many nests there have been within flying range of my hives but this is certainly fascinating for me, you can’t beat first hand experience.

Asian Hornets in a Bee hive

Asian Hornet in France


Monday 17 November 2014

Very poor Honey harvest 2014

Churning out bad news isn’t fun but there is no avoiding the fact that honey yields continue more or less year on year to reduce in both my part and many other parts of France. This has nothing to do with any real or imaginary issues with honey bee populations but is simply a result of the amount of nectar that is available for any single bee colony to collect.

These days increasingly large swathes of France are used for growing cereals where it is the main use of the countryside.  I know I’ve said this many times but it’s fundamental in understanding what is happening with just about every non-woodland species you can think of being affected and needless to say honey bees are no exception. As a result of this massive change in the landscape honey bees and their keepers have become increasingly dependent on a couple of crops to produce surplus harvestable honey due to the loss of native habitat and related flora. This isn’t the same as a bee colony having enough for its own survival which it usually will have but about producing an excess that the bee keeper can remove.

Where I live there are essentially three main possible sources that can provide harvestable honey or at least the bulk of it.  These are Oil seed rape, Sweet Chestnut and Sunflower but all three are relatively short flowering and subject to weather conditions being right.

Right conditions in the case of Oil seed rape means a temperature of 16°C or more with good bee flying weather. As Oil seed rape usually flowers here in late March / April these conditions are often not met or perhaps only for a few hours in the afternoon. The flowers last from three to six weeks depending on the weather, (they will last longer in poor wet weather). Another issue with Oil seed rape is that the colonies need to have grown enough to really work the flowers when conditions are right.

The right conditions for Sweet Chestnut are simply long hot dry days, 20 to 25°C being ideal with a flowering time here usually around the second half of June / first half of July. Unfortunately in recent years it has tended to rain a fair amount in this period and heavy rain finishes the flowers off completely. The flowers last a couple of weeks or just a little longer.

Click on photos to enlarge.

The right conditions for Sunflowers to produce a decent yield are more complex and depend on both regular rainfalls while they are growing, then fine weather with a temperature of at least 25°C to produce a good nectar flow. The flowers last a couple of weeks or just a little longer and will be in flower between July and September depending on when sown.

Of course some people will have more favourable conditions and depend less on these three sources if they live in or close to a town, village or hamlet with an abundance of other flowers within flying range, sadly not the case for me although mercifully we do have our own three hectares with quite a lot of bramble and other honey bee flowers.

This year conditions just weren’t favourable for the three main sources where I live and the result was a honey harvest that produced about 25% of what it ought to be. Not a disaster personally but worrying as this is the way the countryside is going and it will lead to commercial producers quitting in even larger numbers. Crazy because we are continually being told that there aren’t going to be enough bees to pollinate the crops but it has to be understood that we need more than the agricultural crops to sustain our bees unless we are to become like large parts of the USA shipping the bees round the country in greater and greater numbers and loosing them in equally large numbers. Recent studies are showing that the best place for bees and many other species is in peri-urban situations but these are not usually places where it’s possible to have concentrations of hives.

So thinking positively and working with what I’ve got I’ve been raising, splitting and planting hundreds, (thousands), more plants in our fields to increase the quantity of bee / insect friendly flowers which if nothing else will look nice and provide the variety of nutritional sources that honey bees need to be healthy and at the same time be beneficial to a whole range of other creatures.


Sunday 16 November 2014

Pollen supplements and pollen traps.

Next time you buy or think of buying pollen for your "health" this is the true cost to the bees of pollen production.

Pollen is required by honey bees principally as a protein source to feed their larvae and maintain the colony population. As most people will be aware honey bees collect the pollen from flowers and transport it back to the hive using special hairy receptacles on their hind legs called corbiculae. It's an extremely energy intensive activity and efficiency is paramount in making sure that other colony activities aren’t diminished.   

Pollen trapping is dependent on the use of a screen or perforated metal grid of about 5-mesh per inch through which the pollen-collecting field bees are forced to enter the colony and this grid forcibly removes the pollen from their legs. This grid is used with a pellet collection container that is covered by 7- or 8-mesh screen to prevent bee entry. This basic principle is common to all pollen traps.

Click on photo to enlarge.

Of course what this means in practice is that the colony is starved of pollen and more and more bees will be diverted from other duties to pollen collection in an attempt to feed the colonies brood. What makes this situation even worse in recent years is that the bees are increasingly fed artificial pollen using soya flour made into patties via the top of the hive a practice that I consider to be total folly. It’s quite clear, (and there are studies to prove it), that healthy bees require a variety of natural pollens in exactly the same way that we require a balanced variety of healthy foods.

Unlike honey which is produced and stored in bulk long term by the bees pollen is foraged according to colony requirements and rarely stored for any length of time.

You will have guessed by now that I don’t like pollen traps or anything else for that matter that treats our honey bees like industrial machines to satisfy our ever-increasing thoughtless demands so please spare a thought for Honey bees.


Not so much a secret as just not talked about.

Some years ago I was out with a couple of friends doing a bit of birding and generally poking about in the countryside as one does when we saw one of those fields that had recently been sprayed with Glyphosate and had turned that lovely characteristic rusty orange colour which triggered yet another conversation about the use of toxic substances in agriculture.

Click on photo to enlarge.

One of the people I was with works in the agricultural sector in the UK and can be a bit of a wind up merchant and I’m never sure whether he is being serious or not. Anyway he does understand the sector as an insider which is always useful, especially as trying to get a straight honest answer from farmers where I live is a total waste of time. Somehow or another during the course of this conversation he mentioned that wheat is sprayed with glyphosate, (Roundup),  in the UK as a pre-harvest crop desiccation, that is to kill off the crop to enable uniform and rapid drying just before harvesting. I have to say that at the time I wasn’t sure whether I believed him as it seemed to be such a ridiculous and stupid idea but it transpires that this has been happening for a long time and not only on wheat and not only with glyphosate, (for potatoes carfentrazone-ethyl is used). The majority of Oil seed rape in the UK is also sprayed, (up to 80%), and much of this also goes into the human food chain.

Is this an issue? Well yes it most certainly is because it turns out that Glyphosate residues are to be found in biscuits, bread and other cereal products according to the UK governments’ pesticide sampling reports. There are a number of independent studies that indicate harmful effects from Glyphosate ingestion such as one from Denmark that showed that the health of pigs was being adversely affected by eating feeds containing elevated - but still legal - levels of glyphosate. There are also a growing number of people that believe there may be a connection with this and the increasing number of people with wheat intolerance, (not Coeliac disease which is an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that occurs in genetically predisposed people of all ages).

Of course Monsanto makers of Roundup dispute that there are any possible harmful effects from Glyphosate and insist that the herbicide is safe BUT then they would say that wouldn’t they?

As far as I can ascertain this specific type of spraying isn’t practiced in France or not to any great extent due to more favourable climatic conditions for natural ripening and drying although it is used on a massive scale for preparing fields for cultivation and domestically in peoples’ gardens.

Glyphosate was first marketed as a herbicide in the 1970’s as Roundup and is now has global market dominance. 

Whatever else you may think about this product it certainly shouldn't be in our food.


Wednesday 23 July 2014

Asian Hornets in a Bee hive

Like most tales there is a history of events and like most tales that involve me it contains a somewhat casual randomness of action that is characteristic of my approach to life.

In the spring of last year I collected some bees in a ruchette, (small hive box), and returned home with them around dusk and spotting an empty African Top Bar Hive with a flat lid I thought that will do and put them on top of it. The colony grew as most of them do and as this was now their orientated spot I transferred them into a full hive in the same position.

Click on images to enlarge.

This spring I added a honey super along with all the other hives that required them and left them to it just keeping an eye on things in case anything went seriously wrong and also when and if supers need adding or changing. Then about four weeks ago when I was by that particular hive I saw an Asian Hornet fly into the empty Top Bar Hive and not come back out. Ooooop’s thought I, better keep an eye on that and see what’s happening as it wasn’t possible for me to easily move the occupied hive on top and should it be an Asian Hornet nest there would be plenty of time to deal with it before it could even be considered a nuisance.

Time passed as it does and last week I observed that there was an increase in activity with the odd Hornet coming and going. The problem was that I managed to injure my back the other week which has made lifting and heaving impossible or as good as impossible without risking an even worse back situation with the honey harvest due in 3 or 4 weeks.

Anyway, yesterday Fred Woolford a bee keeper friend came round to give me a hand to move things to enable us to access to the Hornet nest.  In the event it wasn’t complicated with two people simply using some blocks and another empty hive to stand the occupied one on. For the bees this only meant moving their entrance forward by 60 or 70 cm on their existing flight path. When we did this it rocked the Top Bar Hive a bit and a small number of not very happy Hornets came out to buzz us and having left them to settle a bit I removed the lid from the hornet hive to reveal a lovely little nest as you can see in the photos.

I’m sure some people may have looked at that and thought “What’s the fuss about?” but it’s at this time of year that an Asian Hornet colony will increase in size exponentially and can reach huge proportions in both physical size and population by September.

The rest is history for the Hornets at any rate, sad but necessary, native hornets I may have tolerated even that close to an active hive but not an introduced species.

Thursday 17 July 2014

An Aesculapian snake fell in the river today.

Having injured my back which has put a temporary halt to all strenuous activity and as it’s been 31°C this afternoon I thought I’d have a wander by the River Charente just to the east of Civray where I could mooch about in the shade of the trees and see what, if anything, turned up or just being lazy in other words, something I'm quite experienced in.

The river Charente has had Asian Hornets almost since they arrived in France as they appeared to follow the river and the tall poplar tree plantations that board the river have provided ideal places for them to make their nests. With this in mind it was no surprise to see some flying around by the riverside but my interest was taken by the fact that they were taking nectar from Water Figwort and stopped to take a few photos, or rather try to as they wouldn't stay still.  

Click on photos to enlarge.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that the River Charente is a very clean river in the upper reaches, it positively heaves with a variety of fish which is great for the Otters! Carp, chub, roach, perch, pike, bream and barbell abound and there are plenty of large mature specimens along with large shoals of fry so it’s not unusual to hear and see the occasional large splash. So it was at this point while looking at the Asian Hornets that there was a large splash about 10 metres from the bank in front of me and then a snakes head emerged from the water and it started to swim towards me. Now for some people I can imagine this isn't their idea of fun but for me it’s always a real treat and I immediately froze so as not to frighten it away and waited as it slithered up the bank and into a hazel bush on the riverside. It didn't dawn on me immediately that the snake had actually fallen from an overhanging branch and I was expecting a “water snake”, either a Grass snake or a Viperine snake and was surprised to see that it was in fact an Aesculapian snake about 70cm or so in length, beautiful! They are frequently found alongside water courses and only a few weeks ago I had seen one dead in the road near the centre of town not far from the river. For anyone that doesn't know Aesculapian snakes are generally timid, slow moving and with care quite approachable which enabled me to get nice and close for the next 10 minutes while it meandered its way round the small branches before eventually sliding away along the bank side. They and the Western whip snake are climbing snakes and both spend time in trees and bushes where they can sometimes take young birds. They will both spend time in peoples roofs as well where shed skins can sometimes be found.

Click on photos to enlarge.


Wednesday 16 July 2014

Crickets and a few selected photos and other oddments from June / July

A small selection of bits and pieces from the last few weeks with a few photos some of which I’m quite pleased with especially the Libelloides longicornis which I've waited years for, massive thanks to Samuel Ducept of Vienne Nature for making his hand available. 

Click on pictures to enlarge.

Libelloides longicornis is found in South west Europe and frequents sunny open habitats where they hunt flies and other small insects by patrolling at a height of about 2 to 3 metres.

Now a word in your ear about being a bit careful when translating French names to English for creatures which isn't always that simple especially when the dictionaries have it wrong in some cases. A classic example is the French word Sauterelle which will translate to Grasshopper in most major dictionaries when in fact it should translate to Bush cricket.

This may help to avoid confusion.

Sauterelle = Bush cricket – long antennae
Criquet = Grass hopper – short antennae
Grillon = Cricket – long antennae apart from the Mole cricket, Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa which has short antennae.

I’ve seen five different Crickets seen in the last month to share here including a juvenile Mole Cricket discovered under a large stone by a lake. Turning rocks and stones will often produce interesting results exposing creatures that are taking shelter.
Some people get confused and think that the Field Cricket is the Mole Cricket because the male Field Cricket uses an angled hole in the ground to hide in and try to attract females to it, however the Mole Cricket actually spends most of its life underground where it tunnels with its powerful front legs that are adapted in a similar fashion to a mole. In this photo they are tucked in by its head.

Mole Cricket – Courtilière - Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa.  Wet or moisture retentive fields and meadows, edges of ponds, lakes, rivers and similar water courses. Up to 5cm

Grillon bordelais (Tartarogryllus burdigalensis) Bordeaux Cricket. Open grassy scrub, cultivated fields and similar habitats. Up to 1.5cm

Grillon des bois (Nemobius sylvestris) Wood Cricket. In all types of woodland and bordering scrub and grassland. Up to 1.25cm

Grillon des marais (Pteronemobius Heydenii) Marsh Cricket.  Along the edges of and in close proximity to lakes, ponds, rivers and similar water courses. Very small Cricket no more than 1cm.

Grillon champêtre (Gryllus campestris) Field Cricket. Almost anywhere but especially different types of grassland. Up to 2.75cm

Moving on to another interesting species that I was shown, a small group of Martagon Lilies in some ancient woodland near to Lussac les Chateaux in Vienne. Although this isn’t a rare species in France they are normally found in mountainous regions, Alpes, Pyrenees, Jura and the Massif Central but here hidden away in these woodlands are some very small pockets following the retreat of the last glaciation.  Remarkably, (or maybe not), they had Scarlet Lily beetles, Lilioceris lilii, on them and had presumably been existing together for many years.

Three butterflies that might be of interest for UK residents as they aren't to be found there. Otherwise it’s been a very poor year for butterflies around here so far other than for the commonest of species and very few of some of them. On the bright side there has been an apparent increase in the number of Small Tortoiseshells, Aglais urticae, a species that has become rare in the region in recent years. I saw four individuals earlier this year here!

Mallow skipper Carcharodus alceae (L'Hespérie).

Weavers fritillary  Clossiana dia (La Petite violette)

 Ilex hairstreak  Satyrium ilicis (Le Thécla de l'yeuse)

On the bee front it’s been mixed to say the least of it. The Sweet Chestnut started to flower and for a few days it was hot and the bees were working hard, then as in recent years it took a turn for the worse with cold and rain on and off finally culminating in half the trees with spoiled flowers before they even opened. The first of the Sunflowers started to open about a week ago and right now it’s hot and sunny – I hope it lasts, the next four or five weeks will determine the honey yield.

Had a call to a small colony the other week that was built behind shutters in a doorway which took about 30 minutes to remove and put in a ruchette, I wish they were all that simple and then yesterday I had a really, really small swarm in my apiary which I’ve popped in a Warré and today they appear to be behaving like bees with a purpose! If they do have a Queen they will need some syrup to get them anywhere near strength for winter.

Earthnut pea, Lathyrus tuberosus, is an amazing and little known plant, a real all rounder being very attractive with a super perfume and importantly honey bees love it  A perennial that once introduced and established will form dense clumps and can be used to climb fences or through bushes.

I can’t help but admire, if that’s the right word, how the Crab Spiders have developed over time with their hosts, the plants and their flowers and their prey which visits the flowers, mainly it seems to be bees, butterflies and hoverflies that succumb to their fangs.

Crab spider Synema-globosum with a honey-bee and  Milichiidae, Jackel or Freeloader flies.

Off to check the bees now,

Friday 11 July 2014

Conops vesicularis and the Asian Hornet, an interesting development?

The war against the Asian Hornet continues.

Conops vesicularis is a small fly from the genus Conops in the family Conopidae and its larvae are endoparasites of bees and wasps. Females inject their eggs into the target species where the larvae develop by eating the host causing its death – all very charming I can see you thinking however it may be a help in controlling the Asian Hornet, an invasive introduced species that targets Honey bees.

Three researchers from the 'Institut de recherche sur la biologie de l'insecte (CNRS/Université François Rabelais de Tours) have been conducting research into whether native parasitic species could have an impact on the health of Asian Hornet colonies.

They scrutinized the life of 12 colonies of Asian hornets situated near their laboratory in Tours. The colonies were monitored twice a week between June and August 2013 and out of the 12 colonies studied only three developed normally. It was the others that interested the researchers. From inside the decimated colonies they collected two dead queens for dissection and each was found to have a parasite in the abdomen that had completely devoured their insides.

This parasite has been identified as Conops vesicularis, a native species common in Europe that normally attacks Bumble bees and that has no nuisance potential for humans but in these instances it seems to be capable of taking on the Asian Hornet giving hope that eventually this parasite could limit the number of colonies of Asian hornets, or even lead to their decline in Europe.


Montagu’s Harriers nests destroyed in Vienne, France.

Hen and Montagu’s Harriers have always been victims in many European Countries and France is no exception.  Historically they have been persecuted and killed simply for being birds of prey, something which affected many other raptor species until they were given protection in 1976 but unfortunately this wasn't the end of their troubles.

Both Hen and Montagu’s Harrier are birds that like wide open spaces, heath land and plains and it is in these habitats that they make their nests on the ground in low to medium height vegetation and this has lead them into trouble as natural open habitat has disappeared to be replaced increasingly with cereal cultivation. This wasn’t too much of a handicap when crops were more diverse, spring sown and the land was worked with small machines or by hand. The birds adapted to using wheat, barley and pea fields without too many problems, (other than the persecution), then the so called green revolution started, autumn sown barley and wheat crops were developed and there was the introduction of oil seed rape, also autumn sown in France. Farm machinery keeps increasing in size and crops are harvested earlier in the year which in most years will be before the chicks have fledged leading to large losses as they are chopped up.

Here in Poitou-Charentes we host more than 20% of the entire French nesting population for these species as can be seen from the maps and with this in mind Groupe ornithologique des Deux-Sèvres, the LPO Vienne, LPO Charente Maritime and Charente Nature participate in protection schemes funded by the EU, State and Region in the zones that are considered most important having been given Natura2000 status.  

Click on photos to enlarge. 

Map showing Hen Harrier nesting in France

Map showing Montagu's Harrier nesting in France

Both maps courtesy of Rapaces nicheurs de France ISBN 2-603-01313-0 

Huge amounts of time are spent building relationships with farmers attempting to convince them of the importance of taking part in measures to protect the nests and young on their land in return for modest financial compensation. Most of the day to day work is carried out by volunteers that observe the birds in spring to record birds that are paired and where the nest site is located. Initially this means observing mating displays and aerial prey passing followed later by males carrying prey in their talons which they bring to near the nest site for the female. She will either fly up and the prey will be passed to her or the male will place it on the ground a short distance away and she will fetch it. Having noted where she flies up from it is then possible to locate the nest and mark it with poles allowing continued monitoring with ringing or wing tagging of young birds in some cases.

Unfortunately this year between 25th and 26th June the nests of four Monatgu’s Harriers were systematically destroyed with the loss of 17 young birds. These nests had been fenced with chicken wire and there were no signs or traces left that would indicate any form of natural predation. As the Montagu’s Harrier is a fully protected bird the LPO will be lodging a formal criminal complaint against “X” (person or persons unknown).  Sadly this follows on from a very poor breeding years for both species in both 2012 and 2013 as a result of cold, wet weather conditions and a crash in the vole populations with many pairs simply not even nesting.

Destroyed Montagu's Harrier nest - LPO Vienne

Hen Harriers are more or less resident here in Poitou-Charentes with some birds moving to the south or to Spain in winter. Current estimates are for between 7,800 11,200 breeding couples in France.

Montagu’s Harriers migrate to West Africa for winter where they reside on Savannah and can form roosts in the thousands. Current estimates are for around 3,900 and 5,100 breeding couples in France.

Diet for both species comprises rodents, small birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles, rabbits.