Sunday 20 April 2014

Honey bee swarms and bees in houses.

It’s that time of year again when the bees are swarming and I’m busy collecting them or at least trying to in my own apiary. It’s also the time of year when the phone starts ringing, usually because people have a colony of bees that has taken up residence somewhere in their house and this is something I've been meaning to put in print for years.

To start I’ll provide a little simple background on what a honey bee swarm is and why they do it as it’s not something everyone understands or knows about unless they keep bees.

A honey bee colony is a group of bees made up of tens of thousands of individual insects that are continually dying and being replaced, the bulk of the bees are “workers”, (sterile females), with a smaller and more variable number of drones, (males), depending on the time of year and usually with one Queen, (there are exceptions to the latter but that’s not important here).

Being a colony or a functioning whole it has to find a way to reproduce itself, this is achieved by splitting into two and this is where swarming comes into play. It has to divide because in the same way that individuals die entire colonies will also fail, (die out), from time to time and balance needs to be maintained.

Following the winter and usually sometime around the middle of April until the end of May the colony population should have grown back to full strength – what this is in numbers will depend on the specific genetics of the colony and how much space they have but could be as much as 70,000 bees or even more.

At this point it is likely that the colony will prepare for swarming and then usually on a warm day, often between 11am and 3pm, the existing Queen will leave the colony with about 50% of the colony, fly a short distance and form a cluster hanging on just about anything, a bush, a branch, a fence etc. Mostly this will be comprised of young bees that have filled up with enough honey to meet the needs of the coming 10 to 14 days while they find and start to construct a suitable “new home”.

The swarm will remain suspended like this for as little as 20 minutes if they have already chosen a new home or for as long as a week or even more if they struggle to find somewhere but speed is of the essence in having them captured and collected !!

NOTE: It’s important to understand that only honey bees swarm and form large clusters.


So if having failed to capture them for one reason or another they will in most cases quickly find somewhere to install themselves, move in and immediately start to make comb. Comb construction is rapid, it has to be because they have nowhere to put stores and nowhere for the Queen to put her eggs and new bees to be raised. They will always occupy an enclosed cavity apart from when exceptionally they fail to find somewhere suitable. These “cavities” can be almost anything, a hollow tree, a compost bin, an old discarded water heater or other drum, an old wine barrel, the list is endless but over the last 10 / 20 years they have been increasingly using peoples houses in rural France and there is a perfectly logical explanation for this connected in large part to the arrival of large numbers of immigrants, mainly from the UK.

These immigrants when they arrived from the UK immediately saw the potential for “renovating” all these old rustic stone properties which included converting the open greniers, (the upper floor), into living space. These open upper floors had traditionally only been used for storing food and other items and provided nowhere interesting for bees. So with these conversions and modernisations various new places for honey bee colonies have been created, notably in the space between the boards that support the roof tiles and any fitted ceiling that follows the line of the roof, any plasterboard dry lining that leaves a space between it and the house walls and in the space that is left when the outside and inside house walls are built up to the roof, (this space of perhaps 15 to 20 cm was traditionally left open), and in chimneys that have been fitted with a wood burner flue or with some other cap that gives the bees something to build in. Oh, and one more place particularly in houses that are left empty, the space between the window and the shutters if they are left closed.

Given that to remove a honey bee colony it’s necessary to gain access to the entire comb structure, AND DON’T LET ANYONE TELL YOU OTHERWISE, the practicality of removal will depend on exactly where it is. People will talk of “trap outs” and “bleed outs” but none of these removes the colonies and only traps the foraging bees leaving the Queen and colony core in place.

Starting with the relatively easy type between window and shutters this in my experience can usually be dealt with starting in the late afternoon and finished by dusk but may well take longer if well established.

In a roof requires removing a section of roof or interior ceiling, usually possible but not always straightforward depending on the exact situation, (I no longer go on roofs to remove bees although I have completed a large number of removals “from above”). It should be possible to complete in a day or two.

Behind plasterboard is the same, it requires removing a section of boarding, should be reasonably OK and maybe up to a day or twos work.

Same again if in any cavity formed at the top of the exterior wall if it’s possible to get at without too many complications.

Removal from chimneys as a rule is out of the question.

Now we come to pre emptive measures and solutions and obviously it’s best as with most things in life to prevent rather than having to cure.

As already mentioned should you see a swarm of bees clustered outside anywhere call a beekeeper immediately and without delay - LISTS HERE.

Should you notice bees congregating or flying around your chimney light a slow smoky fire and keep it burning throughout the hours of daylight and do this until all bee activity ceases, you can also try this during the first few days after a swarm has arrived with it has to be said mixed results. It won’t work once the colony has settled in.

Should you see bees congregating or flying around cracks or holes in your house walls or in your roof and providing it’s an accessible area you can stuff wads of kitchen roll or something similar soaked it cheap perfume, aftershave or deodorant into the crevices etc. this should deter them in most cases.


Finally if all else fails and removal isn't a viable option I would suggest that you just live with them and be happy, consider it a privilege, large numbers of people do and if they are in a roof they soon forget they are even there. Contrary to many popular myths they don’t chew or eat their way through you building / ceiling or whatever. The honey doesn’t pour out and through you ceiling etc unless you or someone pokes the colony about – if honey fell out of the comb evolution would have changed it a long time ago. They won’t swarm all over you and sting you as long as you don’t get too close to the entrance to the colony which is unlikely if they are in your roof – they only get defensive about their home not when they are out and about foraging so it’s really no different from having a hive in next doors garden.


Tuesday 15 April 2014

On the trail of Otters and Beavers in La Vienne

20 years or so ago it would have been impossible to find an Otter or Beaver in any of the rivers and waterways of the Vienne department of France, in fact the Otter was almost pushed to extinction in France and was only to be found in the Atlantic regions and the Massif Central by the 1980’s . Since then there has been a steady improvement with a continuous re-colonisation inland towards the east following the main river systems and their tributaries. In the Vienne department we have the rivers Charente which enters the sea near Rochefort and the Vienne which is a tributary of the river Loire. Both of these rivers also have numerous tributaries notably in the Vienne these are the Clain and the Gartempe which again have their tributaries.

The situation with Beavers is somewhat different following their extinction in most of France with reintroduction being required in many places.

The only river in Poitou Charentes where a reintroduction was attempted was the Creuse in Vienne where 4 beavers were released during 1970-1973 and this failed but this wasn’t the end for our region. During the period 1974-1976 13 beavers were released in the river Loir in Loir-et-Cher and during 1994-1996 another 13 were released in the river Loir in Loir both being successful. From the river Loir the Beavers have bred and slowly increased their range and are now present for us in the rivers Vienne, Creuse, Gartempe, Anglin, Salleron, Clain, Thouet, Argenton and la Dive du Nord.

One of the many tasks undertaken by the recognised Nature Associations along with the ONCFS (Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage) is to research and monitor the presence and range expansion of both species and in the Vienne there are several days of research dedicated to this in most years by Vienne Nature along with a small number of volunteers. This requires the relatively simple practice of seeking out signs of their respective activity.

For European Beaver this is dam creation, small tree felling and small gnawed or stripped pieces of branch with their distinctive chiseling patterns.

For Otters it is spraints, (otter excrement), footprints and remains of prey, crayfish claws, fish heads and frogs/toads that have had their insides eaten. Great care needs to be taken with the remains of prey that could result from other activity, anglers in the case of fish and crayfish remains and also Polecat, (Poutois), for Crayfish and frog and toad remains.  Generally frog and toad remains, (known as “carnage”), should not be taken as concrete proof but are a good indication when spraints have also been found within a few kilometres.

With this in mind I set out with Miguel Gailledrat of Vienne Nature the other week for a day on the Boivre a small river that rises in Vasles, Deux-Sevres and enters the river Clain in Poitiers. Its name La Boivre is thought to be derived from the ancient French word Bièvre for Beaver and is today also called Rivière aux castors or “beaver river” although there is no evidence that Beavers were ever here and it wasn't Beavers we were looking for in this river but Otters although it's quite probable that they will colonise the Boivre in time.

I should mention that although the principle purpose was to look for signs of otters we would also record any signs of Coypu, Southern Water Vole and any freshwater clams or mussels and indeed anything else noteworthy but not plants although I’ve included a few photos! The idea is to look at all the bridges and ideally look for 150 metres or more either side of the river on both sides of the bridge if this is possible which unfortunately it often isn’t. When only one side of the river is accessible the use of field glasses may assist in viewing any flat surfaces on the opposite bank.

Click images to enlarge.

The Boivre is the last river in the Vienne dapartement where no signs of otters have been recorded and we were hopeful that we could change that and complete the map and remarkably the very first bridge visited produced spraints on the concrete re-enforcements on both sides of the river – what a great start to the day!

The rest of the day continued with some success with more spraints at different locations, one really fresh! Also found in three locations were toad and frog carcasses, plenty of traces of wild boar and roe deer, coypu excrement and some freshwater mussel, (Potomida littoralis), but for me another important and interesting discovery was some Southern water vole, (Arvicola sapidus), excrement on some rocks by a bridge, a protected species which is being recorded Nationally.

The situation with the Beaver in the river Clain is that traces of activity have been found in the northern part of Poitiers and it’s hoped that they will move through the city and out to the south.

Otter in France

European Beaver in France

Southern Water Vole in France


Thursday 3 April 2014

Honey bees and Oil seed rape

With the spring well and truly advanced and the Oil seed rape, (Colza), flowering in the fields locally I finally managed to get the last of the “honey supers” on yesterday and breathed a sigh of relief - just in time, always at the last minute.

Once the temperature exceeds about 15 – 16°C Oil seed rape produces sufficient nectar to create what bee keepers call “a flow” and at this point Honey bees will go totally crazy for it and will travel past all the other sources of nectar such as plum, cherry, apple and blackthorn to reach it, sometimes by several kilometres.

The introduction of spring flowering rape has been one of the major changes both in the French countryside and for honey bees in the last 20 / 25 years with production in 1985 of 1.4 million tons, 1995 of 2.8 million tons, 2005 of 4.5 million tons and 5.5 million tons in 2012.  The change is so great in the areas where it is grown that it has completely altered the behaviour of bees in spring and weather conditions permitting can provide a yield of 10 to 20 kg of rape honey per hive by the end of April and may also result in colonies swarming earlier in the season which is either desirable or not depending on the keepers point of view. Personally as someone that let’s their bees swarm, (and hopefully captures most of them), I think it’s beneficial and allows for a longer period of colony build up with correspondingly greater summer yields and colony strength.

One downside is that the crop itself can have moderate to severe health implications for some people ranging from breathing difficulties, coughing and sneezing to severe headaches.  Anyone that has been near the crop when it’s flowering will have been aware of the powerful perfume that fills the air.

The downside for the bee keeper is that due to the small size of the sugars in rape honey it sets rapidly becoming hard even in the hive and must be removed and extracted rapidly ideally before the rape has finished flowering, which brings us to something else. While the rape is flowering and temperatures are high enough the bees will work furiously and be generally very happy and pleasant natured, or perhaps just too busy to waste time with any human interference. When the rape stops flowering and the flow finishes there is often something of a forage gap with little to fill it other than perhaps Acacia in a good year, consequently the bees can become quite bad tempered for a while.

Back to the rape honey, as mentioned it sets rapidly and is also very hard, however by stirring and remixing it will soften and is then sold as “creamed honey” or “miel crémeux” in French. If left hard in the tub or jar it is easy to soften with a knife when used. 

It’s also very pale, often almost white as can be seen in the photo; to state the obvious it’s the pot on the left.