Wednesday 25 November 2015

Deaths head hawkmoth and Great Peacock moth.

OK, size isn’t everything but the two largest moths we find in France are quite spectacular in both adult form and caterpillar and as such I think are worth a mention, they rarely fail to rise a "wow" when someone finds one.

The Great Peacock Moth Saturnia pyri is the larger of the two and is Euorope largest moth with a wingspan of between 100 and 150mm, (4 to 6 inches), although some texts suggest that 200mm, (8inches), is possible.

Click on images to enlarge

Great Peacock Moth on my hand

This is a species with only one generation a year with the adults usually emerging from mid April to mid May when they devote their short life entirely to reproduction as they live for perhaps 7 days and have no requirement to take nutrition.

Pair of Great Peacock Moths mating

Specifically a virgin female finds a place in a bush or tree where she emits nightly sex pheromones which diffuse into the air which can be picked up by males from as far as 5 km who will home in on the scent, however only one male will get to mate with a female as coupling signals the end of the pheromone emissions and sexual attraction.

It's always worth looking at any outdoor twine door curtains for eggs.

Due to the lack of time the female who is already bursting with eggs will often lay them in the tree where she is as soon as they are fertilised which is like as not in close proximity to where she emerged from her chrysalis or cocoon which may even be the tree where she was an egg herself. In some ways it’s of little importance as the caterpillar will happily use a vast range of deciduous trees.  The caterpillar goes through 4 stages over 35 days before pupating and changes both body colour and the colour of the tubercles.

Caterpillar 1st stage, (Ardèche), Photo Daniel Morel.

Caterpillar last stage

They are to be found more or less all over France if there are trees although there are far fewer towards the north.

The next largest moth is the Deaths head hawkmoth, Acherontia atropos, with a wingspan of 90–130 mm (about 3.5 to 5 inches), which makes it the largest European Hawk moth, (Sphingidae).

Deaths head hawk moth Photo Philippe Mothiron.

Unlike the Great peacock this is not a French resident as such, (yet), but a migratory species par excellence from North Africa where it uses its huge wings to be carried on the air currents across the Mediterranean Sea

Generally the immigrants arrive in May-June and will reproduce in the warmer south of the country where a second generation may be produced in September or October. The caterpillars live for 3 to 5 weeks and the pupal stage can last for about 3 weeks or so.  Adult moths live for around 6 weeks and feed on plant and tree sugars, sugars from fallen fruits and of course most interestingly they can enter honey bee colonies and take uncapped honey even though they are attacked by guard bees at the entrance to some extent but not seriously, however the thick cuticle and resistance to venom allow them to enter the hive or other colony space. Apparently they are able to move about in hives unmolested because they mimic the scent of the bees. I’m not really sure how this works as each colony has its own unique scent.

Caterpillars go through three stages, feed principally on various nightshades, are frequently found on potato plants and can emit a loud click.

Death head hawk moth caterpillars

Caterpillars from the second batch will find it hard to pupate and even if they do they won’t survive the winter frosts.

Showing the skull like pattern on the thorax

The moths name is arrived at by the skull like pattern on the thorax and it’s another species that was considered to be evil or a harbinger of death. In France they were quickly dispatched and treated with Holy water. What with that and pesticides used these days on potato crops they haven’t had an easy time and numbers have reportedly fallen significantly although if there are declines in numbers we would probably have to look to Africa and the situation there.  On the plus side, this year has been exceptional in France with larger numbers of sightings of second generation caterpillars following a very mild winter and a warm, dry spring and summer although again we should be cautious as the growth of social media and abundance of modern phones with cameras may simply be bringing to light larger numbers that would otherwise be missed. 


Sunday 22 November 2015

Bee swarms in French windows and removing them.

This year, as is the case every year, I was called to several houses to remove honey bee colonies that had set up home between their windows and closed shutters. 

This is a very common occurrence here in France whenever houses are left unoccupied for any length of time in the swarming season with the shutters closed, (mainly end of April until the end of June). Scout bees find what for them looks like a great place to set up home and if it wasn’t for the humans it would be. Unfortunately when the humans return to their holiday home or back from a couple of weeks away they find their uninvited guests where they don’t want them to be.

Although this isn’t an ideal situation, unless of course you are happy to leave your shutters permanently closed and enjoy the watching the bees, it isn’t an impossible one providing you can find someone competent to re-home them as quickly as possible. Every day that passes makes it harder on the bees and more difficult for the person removing them; anyway I thought I’d share this one as an example to give some idea of what is involved in a sensitive removal.

I arrived at this house at about 2.30pm in late July having been contacted by Malcolm Harding the key-holder keeping an eye on the property. Doug Hart, bee keeper friend who owns a house locally who was going to give a hand and observe arrived later. The owners of the property were in the UK and the house was on the market to be sold which meant the colony had to be removed to prevent deterring prospective purchasers. As can be seen it was a sizeable colony and well established, probably between 2 and 3 months.  

Click on images to enlarge

 Honey bee colony in the window from the inside.

Number one issue was that the shutters lock from the inside for rather obvious security reasons and couldn’t be opened. Number two issue was that the windows were stuck firmly closed by the wax and wouldn’t open inwards. Solution simple enough – smash a pane of glass to reach in and release the shutter bolt that was just clear at the bottom of the comb. Having done that it was possible to carefully prise the shutters open and mercifully they opened with a clean break to the combs where they were attached near the top leaving the colony nicely exposed ready for removal.

The honey bee colony nicely exposed. 

The principle difficulty in almost all cases apart from a very recently started colony is that a large part of the comb structure is filled with honey. As soon as this is handled honey starts to go everywhere and I try to make every effort to reduce the number of bees that end up dying in this and over the years have worked out a very simple manner to achieve this. I take plastic storage boxes and fill the bottoms with old disused fabric, clothing, sheets or whatever. This prevents puddles of honey forming and provides something for it to soak into. I put metal queen excluders across the tops of the boxes to lay the removed comb on which allows any honey to drip and avoids squashing too many bees. The comb that isn’t used for storing honey is filled with brood in various stages, eggs, larvae and sealed pupae, this I try to leave until I have removed as much comb with honey as I can always cutting carefully with a sharp knife into manageable sections. Of course the comb with honey is very heavy and tears easily when moved out of the vertical.

As much comb with eggs, larvae and sealed pupae as possible is wired into hive frames which are placed either in a ruche, (hive), or a ruchette, (nucleus box or small hive), which is where the colony will hopefully be going for transport. I say hopefully because nothing is ever certain in nature and more than once I have run into to difficulties. These old French houses often have cracks or gaps round the window which lead to cavities in the thick stone walls and some of the bees can sometimes hide with the queen.

Comb containing bee brood in various stages wired into hive frames.

Doug and Malcolm watching the bees while I take a drink

Bees busy fanning pheromones to indicate where the Queen is inside the Ruchette

Once the entire comb has been removed the bees have no where to go. If the queen has already gone in the ruchette with the brood comb the rest of the bees will gradually follow. If she isn’t already in there it’s a case of allowing the bees to form a cluster where the comb was, then putting that cluster in the top of the ruchette. This may have to be repeated until the Queen is in. Once she is in the ruchette can be left on the window ledge under where the comb was and by nightfall the majority of the bees will be in and with the ruchette entrance closed they can be taken away to their new home.

The following morning back in our fields.

A week later when they were put in a full sized hive they had already filled in the gaps in the brood frames, made a huge amount of new comb and filled it with honey and pollen - happy bees.


Wednesday 4 November 2015

Partridge, Pheasant, Mallard and a few others

Many people fail to understand the different types of hunting in France and the methods used. British and French people alike refer to La Chasse, (the hunt), as if it was one thing or one group of people – nothing could be further from the truth.

Spurred on by something I witnessed the other day I thought I would shine a little light on some aspects of what is called Chasse de loisir or Recreational hunting which generally falls into two sections, firstly what we would call wildfowling in the hunting of wild ducks, geese and waders and secondly what is called Rough shooting in the UK where shooters may use their trained dogs (usually Spaniels, Labradors or similar breeds) to flush game out of the hedgerows, woods or other cover as they walk along and often act as retrievers of any creatures shot.

What I want to stick to here is the Rough shooting aspect and the species that mainly relates to are:
Rabbits, Hares, Partridge, (Red-legged and Grey), Wood Pigeon, Stock Dove, Woodcock and Pheasants of various types, more or less what most people would expect but where do they come from?
Some are as you would expect actually wild but many people that live in France will have perhaps noticed a pheasant, a hare or some red-legged partridge walking by the roadside or in their garden that behave as if they have just wandered out accidentally from domestic captivity and that isn’t far from the truth.

What we find is that there are more than 8,000 breeders of “game” in France and around 70% of them are members of the syndicat national des producteurs de gibier de chasse, (The National syndicate of producers of game for hunting).

From them we can obtain the following most recent annual production numbers. 

- 14 million Pheasants
- 5 million Partridge, (Red-legged and Grey)
- 1 million Mallard
- 120 000 Hares
- 10 000 Rabbits
- 500 tonnes Red Deer
- 170 tonnes Fallow Deer

Click on photos to enlarge.

This is only from the 70% of breeders that are members of the society and we can only speculate at how many more there are raised in France plus imports from Eastern Europe. It will certainly be considerably more.

These birds and animals are sold either to private hunts or to local associations for release into the wild, in the case of Mallard, Pheasant and
Partridge this will be in the weeks immediately prior to the start of the hunting season for those species. Obviously as a result of their captive breeding they are completely ill suited to life in the wild being both used to humans and being fed, hence their tameness. 

So to cut to the chase as the expression goes I was out walking my dog the other day at around 2pm on a public chemin, (unmade road), when I first heard and then spotted a number, perhaps a dozen, red legged partridge directly ahead. Almost as soon as I had spotted them I saw a car coming in the other direction that slowed right down and slowly eased its way through the birds which hardly moved. The car continued and came slowly past me and through the open window I heard them cursing the fact that there was a promeneur, (a walker), and I half wondered what would happen next as I continued slowly towards the birds.  The car stopped about 100 metres away from me and one man got out and started walking in my direction. By now I had reached the partridge that were feeding on some scattered maize, (corn), and some went into the bushes and the others trotted along the track in front of me. Meanwhile the man with the gun was limping up behind us. Gradually all but two of the partridge took flight but when this happened I was between him and the birds there was nothing he could do without risking hitting me.  Unfortunately one came back out onto the track the other side of the hunter and what followed astounded me. He slowly walked up to it until it was almost at his feet and then stamped his foot to make it fly at which point he shot it. It would seem the bird has to be in the air to provide “good sport”, perhaps that’s why they don’t use chickens and as you can see in the photo below he wasn’t too happy about my camera. 

Click on photos to enlarge.