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.


Saturday, 14 June 2014

In our fields recently.

It’s fair to say that our fields aren't the most exciting habitat in the region although they probably are the most species rich as a whole for the immediate area albeit most of the species are common, but then common doesn't mean there aren't increasingly reduced numbers at a local level – it all adds up and ours is probably the only decent size bit of proper grassland for many kilometres, everything else is cultivated or so called improved pasture which is really only one step up from a wheat field in terms of species usefulness.

Anyway this isn't about the surrounding area but just a small selection from some idle wandering here and there in our own fields recently with the camera just taking photos of anything that caught my eye and hopefully draw a little attention to the simple plants that can make all the difference.

Starting with a couple of plants that once introduced to grassland will soon establish and sort themselves out, Crown Vetch and Birds Foot Trefoil. These two along with other vetches and tares provide food for a large number of species in both the adult and larval stages. In the last week or so I have seen 6 Spot Burnet moth, (Zygaena filipendulae), 5 Spot Burnet moth, (Zygaena trifolii), Reverdin's Blue butterfly (Plebejus argyrognomon), and large numbers of Burnet Companion moth, (Euclidia glyphica), so called rather obviously because it is invariably found where there are Burnet moths.

Click on images to enlarge

Four different orchids, Greater Butterfly, Loose Flowered, Pyramidal and Bee have all been flowering in the grasses and although they are native species and quite pretty I’m never sure what other value they have. Contrary to popular belief bees and other insects rarely visit most species of French wild orchid and as far as I know they aren't used as a food plant by anything. Having said that I did manage to catch a honey bee on a Pyramidal Orchid in a time of desperation when there was little else available to forage although it quickly flew on and ignored the others.

Marbled White butterflies are out and about in their hundreds, uncut grassland is their number one habitat for successful breeding.

Meadow Clary and Rampion Bellflower are great providers of nectar for insects as is Ragwort; the latter is more or less the only plant that is used by the Cinnabar moth for its caterpillars. We have quite a large number of Ragwort plants and although it has a somewhat bad press from some quarters it's really a rather useful plant provided it doesn't form part of cut hay for animals. The Roe Deer do their usual trick of biting off the tops and then presumably don't eat them - let's face it most animals don't eat things that are bad for them if they have evolved alongside them. 

The Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae), which form the celery, carrot and parsley family are wonderful insect plants, many are the wild plants that have been selectively breed over time to produce the cultivated varieties we grow and eat or use in cooking and indeed many of the wild species are edible although great care needs to be shown with identification as some such as Hemlock are highly toxic and many can produce reactions on tender or sensitive skin when brushed against but of course this no reason not to have them on your land. With the right soil it's possible to have one species or another flowering from April until September. A couple of examples here, more later when I post something about the wider subject of pollinators.

None of these species, (and many, many more), were present here when we first purchased the property which shows a little of what can be achieved with a bit of wilding.


Saturday, 7 June 2014

Honey bee populations in France – some facts and figures

It’s very difficult to get accurate information or an accurate perspective when it comes to the subject of Honey bee populations and this is for a number of reasons that are mostly obvious for anyone that is willing to take a dispassionate view or at least try.

The reason a dispassionate view is required is due to the simple fact that almost everyone involved with honey bees has an agenda, no doubt I have as well but I’ll try to stick to the facts in so far as they can be separated from the modern day myths that are taking over the world and try to be clear when I am speculating or perhaps expressing an opinion.

I find it quite extraordinary in this age of science and technology that far from diminishing the number of myths fed by disingenuous or downright stupid information sources is actually increasing at an alarming rate and the subject of honey bees has now become a gathering place for all manner of people to climb aboard without any real clue about the subject matter and who probably don’t know a honey bee from a hoverfly. Then there is the not so small matter of the gravy train that has been generated with so many people that have their employment dependent on there being problems with honey bees. Huge sums of money are sloshing around from all manner of sources with some of that coming from the pesticide industry. Even Avaaz an online petition provider is asking for donations to fund “an independent research program into what is killing our bees” but when you look you can see it’s anything but impartial and certainly not accurate. Put all of this together and the stage is set for a Whitehall farce of epic proportions with all manner of scams and vested interests at every turn.

From the outset when trying to assess the number of managed colonies in France we need to be realistic and accept that all we can hope for are approximate numbers as will become clear. This is in part due to how hives are registered here.

Before the 1st of January 2010 a person could have up to 10 populated bee hives without any registration or formalities what so ever.

From the 1st of January 2010 with a view to better monitoring of bee populations it became a requirement to register all populated bee hives and their locations starting with the first colony.

Fiscally with up to 40 hives a person pays no social charges, (these are normally around 28% of income in agriculture), although you do have to declare the number of your hives with your tax return and some tax offices may charge an annual tax per hive, normally a few Euro for each hive per annum.

From 40 to 200 hives you are required to pay what is called MSA solidarity which is a reduced charge that provides no benefits such as pension contributions. It is assumed that people with this number of hives either have another income source or benefit from free healthcare.

Over 200 hives and you are treated as a full business and pay full charges via MSA which is the collector of contributions for health, pension and other State charges for people involved in agriculture which includes apiculture.

With human nature being what it is the system encourages keepers to keep their numbers of colonies restricted or perhaps even to under declare. In fact it is generally assumed by the inspectors I have met that as many as  50% of the hives in France aren’t declared and there are undoubtedly a number of people with less than 10 hives in rural areas that don’t even know that they should be declaring them now. All the studies that are available for the number of keepers, number of hives and production of honey per hive annually are in fact no more than broad estimations.

With all this in mind we need to look at the last 35 years partly because this is the period where we have the best records and it is also because this period has seen the most changes for Honey bees in France. Needless to say it’s complex with a number of important overlapping events and changes with little if any statistics until the early 90’s.

Basic figures.

Estimates put the number of beekeepers owning at least one hive in 2010 at 41,836 as opposed to 69,237 in 2004 and 84,214 in 1994 an overall decline of 50% in keepers; however the number of hives has only declined by 21% from 1,351,991 in 1994 to 1,074,218 in 2010. There has been a greater reduction in actual honey production of 28% due to reduced yields.

A third of all French bee keepers are over 61 years old with the majority of the remainder being more than 40 years old, rarely do young people choose the activity. Most people involved in apiculture in France have another income source that is often but not always in agriculture.

There are several possible reasons why the number of people keeping bees has fallen in recent years and we only have to look at the age groups above to realise it’s not something that younger people are flocking to anymore and this applies to agriculture in general.

It’s labour intensive and far from the easiest way to earn a living or even gain a supplementary income in the modern world and faces stiff competition from countries that can produce at a lower price especially since the Single European Market and the opening up of the Eastern European Countries plus the Countries that made up the former Yugoslavia.

The arrival of the Varroa mite in 1982 initially had some impact on increased colony failures which was in part compounded by over zealous use of pesticides and other substances in hives to control them.

Gaucho, (Imidaclopride), a Neonicotinoid, was introduced agriculturally as a seed treatment in 1992 mainly for Sunflowers and Maize and along with other Neonicotinoids in use since then have been widely thought to negatively impact honey bees, (currently banned in the EU since 2013 and not used with crops this year 2014).

Glyphosate, (often known by the trade name Roundup), a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill plants has also become the number one herbicide in both agriculture, communal areas and domestic gardens during this period. It also contains substantial added substances dependant on required use such as Surfactants which are compounds that lower the surface tension (or interfacial tension) between two liquids or between a liquid and a solid. Surfactants may act as detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents, and dispersants. Regardless of any toxic effects these may have it’s clear that they have and are playing a major role in changing the nature of the habitat with a massive reduction in native plant species.

Throughout this same period we have seen the greatest change in crops and habitat ever with hundreds of thousands of kilometres of hedgerow and vast hectarages of heath-land and hay meadow removed to make way for larger and larger fields of Maize, Oil Seed Rape and other cereals. There has also been an intensification of the way that Honey bees are exploited such as to supply the luxury market with products such as Royal Jelly and pollen or the transportation of colonies from crop to crop to provide pollination for monoculture in the broad sense with some 60,000 hives being hired out and transported simply for pollination purposes each year. Transporting populated hives also takes on an increasing scale to produce more single nectar honeys that can be sold at higher prices. Overall there has been what I would call a trend towards industrialisation of honey bees in much the same way as we have and continue to industrialise and exploit our food production.

Additionally there has been a large increase in the number of honey bees imported either as Queens, packages or on frames with a corresponding loss of native bees. Any or all of these may be damaging to colony survival, Queen Longevity or honey yields although as the INRA studies have shown untreated and unmanaged honey bee colonies with local bees survive on average for about seven and half years.

Interestingly Organic apiaries more than doubled in the period 2004 – 2010 from 144 to 360 with 69,495 hives but some of these will use permitted treatments in their hives. Only 2.6% of French Beekeepers are known to use no treatments at all in their hives including the so called natural treatments.

Permitted treatments in France are:



I realise this is a bit lengthy but I’ve tried to keep it as short as possible whist at the same time highlighting the main features and facts and as it stands much more could have been included. We also mustn’t loose sight of the fact that it’s completely natural for bee colonies to fail at a rate that would more or less match their creation. Needless to say this is not a straight line and losses will vary from year to year as it does with other species.

Some other links which may be useful:

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,