Thursday 15 May 2014

Pesticides, Herbicides, Fungicides and GM crops all in the French news.

How the time flies when you’re busy and when the bees are swarming it doesn’t leave time for much else, especially if you are like me and are always leaving everything to the last minute. In this case it’s preparing enough hives and frames for the swarms to be housed in which I’ve just about kept up with, (about 25 so far). Then nature decided to lend a hand by dishing out the rather vile weather we have been experiencing for the last week which has prevented any more colonies from swarming giving me some catch up time. Unfortunately this won’t have helped the bees at all. Any colonies prepared and waiting to swarm may have had to tear down and destroy any Queen cells that were about to hatch and colonies that had already swarmed may have had problems mating their new Queens with all the cold wind and heavy rainstorms which seem to be an increasing spring feature of the weather in this part of France. The requirement to be around my hives for swarming does rather hamper my other activities at this time of year which is a shame, but back out and about soon with some interesting field trips penciled in.

Click on images to enlarge.

On the agricultural front there has been some good news recently in France with the total banning of aerial spraying without any exceptions. This has been an EU law since 2009 but individual member countries can derogate from this when and if they consider it’s required. In France this has been principally in the overseas territories of Martinique, the Antilles and Guadeloupe with certain of the vineyards of Mâcon, (Burgandy), in mainland France. No future authorisations will be granted. Additionally all use of land based sprays will soon only be permitted in the evening and night, not in the daytime although how this will work out and be enforced in practice remains to be seen.

Cultivation of Genetically modified crops has been totally forbidden by the French government which will please many people myself included although I’m sure the corporations will fight back again and again to try and get this overturned.

Back to the vineyards where it seems the river Charente between Angouleme and Saints is the most polluted stretch of river in France with the finger pointed firmly at the Cognac grape growing regions.  A study in 2011 by the highly respected CHU Poitiers showed a higher mortality rate for the population living in the Charente vineyards. Scientists found an over representation of Parkinson's disease (29%) and blood cancers lymphoma types (19%).  Atrazine, desethyl atrazine and the “worlds’ favourite herbicide” glyphosate have all been recorded in substantial levels. Dependence on chemicals at every stage of most French wine production is reducing it to no more than another industrial process, sad days indeed. Even now as I write this there is a report in the paper Sud Ouest of an incident on May 5th at a school in Villeneuve near Bourg-sur-Gironde surrounded by vineyards where 23 students from two classes of primary school and their teacher began to feel the same symptoms of pain in the throat, tingling of the tongue, eye irritation, nausea and headache in the late morning. Earlier, the director had tried to contact the mayor, Catherine Verges, who is also one of the two owners of the vineyards adjacent to the school, to stop the spraying that was underway but to no avail. These incidents are not uncommon and I have heard the tales of people feeling unwell in the vineyards since we came to live in France. The craziest thing of all is that Emmanuel Giboulot a biodynamic winemaker since the 1970s was summoned to the Criminal Court of Dijon this year for refusing to use a chemical product to control flavescence dorée, a bacterial disease of vines. On April 7th he was fined €1000 following which Emmanuel Giboulot said “I do not feel guilty at all. I do not agree with the court's analysis and I still consider that it was not justified to treat the vines against flavescence dorée in the department of Côte-d'Or in 2013 when no outbreak had been detected.” He went on to say “that a product called Pyrevert that is based on natural pyrethrum, an extract of dried chrysanthemum flowers is permitted in organic agriculture but this insecticide is not selective and although it destroys the leafhopper which is the insect vector for the disease flavescence dorée it also destroys a large part of the auxiliary fauna on which I rely for regulating the ecosystem of my vineyard.”  Which is to my mind a totally logical attitude; if and only if there is a requirement to control something it should be targeted and proportionate.

Too much to mention everything in the garden but it hasn’t been good again for butterflies and I've only just seen a few Hornet Queens and Common wasp Queens in the last week and none of the smaller wasps. It does seem that the number of insects is decreasing year after year although I have no hard evidence for that but with the relentless expansion of the “green cereal desert” and given the massive levels of “cides” that are being sprayed here all the time, both agricultural and domestic, it wouldn’t be a surprise. However it isn’t all one way traffic, woodland species seem plentiful with lot’s of Violet oil beetles early in the year, lot’s of baby Bush crickets in our fields and the one butterfly that’s abundant this spring is the Southern speckled wood. All the common birds have nested well on our land and many have fledged their young such as Long tailed tits, Goldfinches, Blackbirds and Black caps. Nightingales are once again everywhere making their presence known with their almost non stop singing with Golden Oriole arriving here in the last week.

Enough for now, it's getting late,

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.


Tuesday 25 March 2014

Waxing frames for bee hives.

I’ll start with a short, simple explanation of some basics for readers that aren’t clued up on keeping bees.

If we begin with the general type of bee hive that has been used by most keepers in France and the UK for the last 100 years or so which comprises a Brood box or what we could call the “hive proper” where the colony lives and the Supers which are placed on top of the Brood box for the excess honey production that the keeper takes. A Queen excluder is placed between the Brood box and the supers. This is a grill made either from metal or plastic that allows the workers to pass through but prevents the larger Queen from "getting upstairs" and laying eggs in the honey supers, however skinny Queens do sometimes get through.

Click to enlarge images.

If you look at the picture you can see these have wooden frames placed inside them, one size for the Brood box and another size for the Supers. These frames are to support the comb and it has been common practice for the last 150 years or so to pre fit these frames with a sheet of moulded wax to give the bees something to build on. The wax sheets are pressed with a honeycomb design and the size or number of these to any given area will determine or dictate to the bees the dimensions that they will use to construct their cells.

Frame with standard wax foundation fitted.

When we take and examine a piece of bee comb from a feral colony it soon becomes clear that different bee colonies make different size cells and more to the point the size of their cells varies in a single colony which would indicate that pushing bees down a one size fits all route may not be desirable, or more precisely may be desirable for the keeper but not necessarily for the bees. Of course we can’t know “if the bees care or not” but as I’m committed to leaving them to their own devices wherever I can I only use wax foundation sheets in the honey supers where the increased rigidity is required to withstand the forces from centrifugal extraction, (spinning). For the brood box frames I simply fix a starter strip of wax in the top of the frame to point them in the right direction, this can be moulded or plain, the rest is up to them. The important thing is to take great care in getting the hive level in all directions as the bees comb will always be vertical and we want the comb they make to remain inside the frames and integrate the stainless steel wires.

Frames with starter strips.

Natural comb drawn from starter strip.

Warré frame part drawn with natural comb.

Other than saving money another potential benefit for the bees maybe a reduction in any pesticide or other toxic build up there could be in using old wax that has been recycled from other hives. It won't prevent the bees bringing "cides" in but it gives them a clean start.


Friday 21 March 2014

Our Wind Farm in Blanzay / Romagne

It’s been known for some time now, 9 or 10 years at any rate that a number of sites in the area have been selected as places for wind turbines with all the relevant wind speed and duration tests completed and found to be satisfactory and one thing we certainly have here is wind for much of the year.

Then came the preliminary approvals for the ones proposed near us with the two relevant Mairies, (Romagne and Blanzay), giving their consent.

Well folks, there are a few things that always rattle peoples cages and having a wind farm being built close to where you live is one of them and it wasn't long before some of the local residents were “getting organised” and preparing to fight this proposed outrage. As with all such projects there was an opportunity for people to make their views known and register their objections or indeed support.

At some point some people formed an association – the Association de Défense et de Protection de l’Environnement de Blanzay (ADPEB) with the aim of presenting a case based on, well, protecting the environment of course, saving birds and bats and stuff like that. This came as something of a surprise to me because up to this point there has been a remarkable lack of interest from the inhabitants in our local environment and bio-diversity as it has been systematically destroyed over recent years, but maybe this has been a "Road to Damascus moment" for some people, we’ll see how much interest they have in the future and I look forward to working with them, there’s plenty that needs changing starting with simple initiatives such as reinstating hedgerows and not continually slashing the roadsides margins.

To cut a long story short the Prefet approved the construction although the Enquiry Commissioner actually recommended against it. The Prefet was of the view that it was merely an opinion which did not bind their decision and it was their responsibility to seek the opinion of administrative services, municipal councils concerned, as well as members of the Commission Departementale de Ia Nature, des Paysages et des Sites (CDNPS). The later would be one or more recognised organisations that would have carried out environmental impacts studies. In the Vienne organisations such as the LPO Vienne and Vienne Nature, the recognised Ornithological and Nature Associations for the Department or a structure such as Biotope are used for this. In this instance the commitment to renewable, clean energy would be considered to far outweigh any minor impact on wildlife which would indeed be negligible at this site and restricted mainly to birds. Although any additional impact is unfortunate it pales into insignificance when compared to what has happened and what is happening to the local habitat. There will undoubtedly be deaths of small birds and one or two of the larger species of birds of prey may suffer casualties as well but realistically of these only Buzzards and Honey Buzzards remain as nesting birds that are likely to collide with the blades. Hen and Montagu’s Harrier have had their nesting possibilities all but ended years ago by modern farming practices and these local fields are now virtually useless as prey hunting zones, (intensive cultivation and lack of voles). Goshawk and Sparrowhawk  are unlikely to come into contact and the nearest nesting site I know for Black kite is about 12km away. Some people have said that Cranes, some of which pass this way on migration, will be in danger and there may be an outside possibility of this but generally the flight altitude of Cranes will take them clear of the turbines.

The final throw of the dice has been the threat by the manager of La Vallee des Singes, a local animal park principally for primates, to close the business and relocate elsewhere. He had requested that the nearest turbine should be no nearer than 3km to the animal park rather than the 1.6km which is proposed because the infra sound would disturb the primates.

Much has also been made of the loss of employment and other losses to the local economy should La Vallee des Singes relocate to another site although this would in fact be a net gain for the wider economy with the construction of a new animal park creating employment while the existing park remained open until the new park was able to accommodate the primates with the existing jobs simply transferring to the new location.

Living as we do with the nearest turbine 600 metres from our property I would naturally be happy to see them being built elsewhere, especially as there is likely to be a negative effect on property prices, but to simply take the attitude of "Not in my back yard" when there is no good reason to oppose them would be hypocritical in the extreme, therefore I have remained neutral throughout the legal processes. The wider debate about wind generation, its effectiveness and how it’s financed is another matter but there is little doubt that it is now a significant and increasing part of "renewable energy production" in many countries and cannot be opposed using spurious disingenuous arguments.

The company concerned is ALSTOM

LPO Vienne 

Vienne Nature 


Maps and notices, click to enlarge images.

UPDATE  22nd March.

Well it now seems following a meeting at the Prefecture that Emmanuel Le Grelle the manager of La vallée des singes in Romagne has decided to pursue what could potentially be a long drawn out legal challenge.

Translated quotes.

"The authority to operate the wind farm was issued by a prefectural order on January 8, 2014. As of this date, I have six months to refer a case to the court. As for the building permit signed by the mayor on 28 February, it was posted last Tuesday. That leaves me two months to file a petition."

"While the courts have not settled, the work will not take place, he predicts. No bank will risk lending money. And as I have decided to go all the way, including before the Council of State, if necessary, this gives us five to seven years!"

Additionally Emmanuel Le Grelle said he had no news of the criminal complaint he filed for “illegal interest” against three current councilors of Blanzay, who he suspects have a personal interest in the wind farm development.

Full article in French 


Thursday 13 March 2014

Pine marten caught on camera.

All of a sudden whoosh, the sun is shining, the air is warm and the spring rush commences and it’s early by a good week or two, surprises everywhere with the last 7 or 8 days having been simply gorgeous with spectacular apricot and plum blossom and spring flowers everywhere.

As usual at this time of year I find myself falling behind or more correctly that I have fallen behind with all those jobs that should have been finished by now, so just a quick update on what I've managed to capture with the Trail Camera I purchased back in November last year as mentioned HERE.

Other than a constant stream of Roe deer that is to be expected, (I can see them easily in the fields outside most days, even right up close to the house), I managed to get a short clip one night of a badger at a friends property and will go back there soon now the hunting season is over. Sadly Badgers are hunted and persecuted in France on a large scale and although my friends’ woodland is removed from hunting it’s better not to draw attention to their presence. 


Not very exciting but I managed to get a half decent still frame of a Hare on our land. They aren’t very common round here at present and the hunting in our region for them was suspended this season 

A bit of a surprise was to find we have a fox in residence. Again although these are perhaps not exactly rare they are extensively hunted and rarely seen around these regions.


Then the other night I managed to get some film and stills of Pine Martens which is great and I will definitely try to get some better quality film. This one seems to only have one eye.


Overall the quality of the photos and film isn't that great, I would have expected perhaps a little better given the glowing sales pitch, however the main purpose is served in seeing what is and equally important what isn't present.