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.