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.


Tuesday 14 April 2015

Honey bees are wild, it really is that simple.

There seems to be a large number of people in the bee keeping world that can’t get to grips with the fact that Honey bees can and do live quite contentedly without the assistance of Human beings and have done so for some 300,000 years managing the ups and downs of disease and ice ages. Insects really don’t need us to manipulate their life processes, they just require suitable habitat and living conditions and Honey bees are no exception to this, but already I hear the cries of outraged bee fiddlers everywhere accusing me of bad management, spreading disease and worse.

Let’s start by taking a quick look at some of the mainstream bee keeping practices;

* Clipping the Queens wings to prevent them from being able to fly when the colony attempts to divide and swarm.

* Opening the hive on a regular basis, normally every 7/8 days in the season, removing the frames of comb to check for signs of diseases and for any Queen cells that are made prior to swarming.

* Should Queen Cells be found it is fairly common practice to destroy all but one or two or in some cases all of them. (The bees will make perhaps 10 – 15 but will normally only allow one or two to hatch, the others are insurance).

* Regularly destroy Drone cells and larvae to reduce the number of varroa mites; there is a special tool for this – a Drone comb.

* Use Plastic pre formed honey comb.

* Using various insecticide treatments in the hive to kill varroa mites.

* Regularly removing old Brood comb and replacing, usually with a frame of new wax foundation.

* Transporting hives with bees from one location to another for forage.

* Feeding the bees with artificial pollen substitutes often made from soya flour.

Granted not all mainstream keepers use or practice all of these methods but weekly removal and inspection of colony frames much of the year, varroa mite control and swarm prevention are considered to be necessary for colony survival and preventing the escape of colonies into the wild.

My perspective on this that puts me in the naughty corner is that I simply don’t think it is right or necessary to treat bees using any of these products or methods. I’m happy for my bees to swarm, in fact it’s a marvel of nature and although it takes time I enjoy swarm collection and hiving them. I never have any health issues with my bees, and yes, I would know and I’m certainly not of a mind to use insecticides in my hives whether they are synthetic or so called natural.  

Contrary to the popular view Honey bee colonies don’t die or fail when left alone or I should say that they don’t fail anymore than would be naturally expected. The only disease that is considered to be serious in France is American Foul Brood which isn’t very common and is mainly spread by bee keepers using infected equipment or selling infected stock.

Much is made of replacing old comb with new wax foundation, but if left to themselves they manage the comb by removing any  that is no longer fit for purpose and replacing or restoring as required, something they have always done.  Many keepers talk of hives becoming too full of honey or too full of brood but again the bees will manage this if they are of local stock although maybe not to our maximum profit.

For the time being how a person wishes to keep and manage their bees is still a matter of choice here in France, (and the UK), but as always there is a vociferous body of people that would impose their views and methods on everyone else.

This short video, made 14.04.2015 shows one of my hives that has been completely free of interference for 8 years. The brood frames have never been touched, looked at or fiddled with. The hive has been allowed to swarm and produce their own new Queen each year and as can be seen they are healthy and industrious with the “air conditioning on”, (the bees upside down fanning at the entrance).  If you watch carefully you will also see one or two bees exiting the hive with debris in their mouths that they are cleaning out.


Monday 6 April 2015

Glow-worms – Gardeners’ friends

Glow worms are great but many people never see them, perhaps because they simply aren't where they live or perhaps because there is too much light where they are.

We are fortunate at our place to have substantial numbers of them due in no small part to the habitat structure of our land but there is no reason why most people shouldn't have them in their garden in rural France, (or the UK for that matter) or that they shouldn't be anywhere else that isn't being constantly ploughed and sprayed. However where they have become locally extinct or absent it is difficult for them to re establish due to the fact that the females can’t fly and rarely move far from their birth place.

Generally they have a preference for longish grass, footpath and track edges, roadside verges and the base of hedgerows, anywhere in fact that provides nutrition for the larvae and somewhere for the female to be visible to males that are flying around looking for them.

They have a complete 4 stage metamorphosis, egg, larva, pupa and adult and the principle species to be found here is Lampyris noctiluca

Females having mated immediately lay their eggs and then die, a fairly common occurrence in the insect world.

The eggs, which are laid between June and September take up to 30 days to hatch at which point the larvae start to feed on snails and less frequently slugs which they continue to feed on for 1 or 2 years, even 3 sometimes. These delayed and staggered larval life spans allow for bad years and provide a sort of insurance. The larvae have pale spots at the rear edge of each segment. They move very slowly on the surface in search of prey and can sometimes be seen on paths in daylight. Otherwise they tend to be found under stones, pots and so on and may well be accompanied by a number of empty, unbroken snail shells. Larvae of females can emit a faint glow which may be visible on dark nights.

Video of a glowworm larva riding on the back of a snail to bite and inject the poison that is produced in the larva's intestine and is able to digest proteins. VIEW VIDEO

Click on images to enlarge.

The pupal stage only lasts 10 to 15 days and is not often encountered by people unless they are actively looking for them.

Male and Female adults are different in so much as only the males have wings and can fly, neither are thought to eat. 

Females have a similar appearance to the larvae but without the pale spots at the rear edge of each segment and with a pale line down the centre of their backs. They don’t move around very much spending their life either on the ground or clinging to a grass stalk to allow their glowing end to be visible at night They are rarely seen in daylight.  

Males are much smaller with dark brown or black wing cases and fly low at night searching for the glow of females.

From a conservation point of view we need to avoid pesticides at all costs and not be too fussy about having some snails in the garden or on our land. Even in smaller gardens it should be possible to make one part of the garden a snail zone with a rock feature and some favoured snail food. Finally we need to ensure that there isn't too much in the way of outside lights that may prevent the males from finding the females.

If you are in France it would be really helpful to complete the simple online recording form HERE

Extensive detailed information HERE

Tuesday 31 March 2015

Violet Oil Beetle in France

Oil beetles are another one of those species that not everyone is comfortable with due to their interesting life cycle which we’ll come to.

They belong to the genus Meloe which is a large group with some 35 species of Oil beetle in Europe and 15 in France although I’m not sure how rare some of them may be and they are also somewhat understudied according to OPIE. Certainly the commonest are the Black Oil Beetle Meloe proscarabaeus and the one I find at our place the Violet Oil Beetles, Meloe violaceus, and we sure have a lot of them, so many that it’s hard not to tread on them when walking among the trees where the Lesser celandines are flowering at the moment.

Click images to enlarge

Below: Newly emerged female before putting on weight.

Below: Female having put on weight. 

Below: Recently emerged male with pronounced kinked antennae.

Below: Another male, again showing pronounced kinked antennae.

They are a flightless beetle without functional wings, and shortened elytra, (modified, hardened front wings), and they have a very interesting life cycle as mentioned.  Soon after emergence in March / April the adult beetles mate after first putting on some weight. With both the Violet and Black Oil Beetle the males have kinked antennae which they use to hang on to the females antennae with during courtship.  Once coupled they remain attached with the male being dragged around for an hour or more. The female then lays her eggs in a small hollow she digs in the soil and when these hatch the larvae, (called triungulins as they have 3 hooks on each foot), climb up the vegetation and wait on a flower head for a passing bee to settle to which they attach themselves. Very few survive but those that do and manage to hitch a ride are taken back to the solitary bees’ nest where they consume the bees’ eggs and the nutrition that has been put there. They then pupate and emerge the following year.

Below: Violet Oil Beetles coupled.

Below: Violet Oil Beetle eating Celandine.

They are classified as cleptoparasites and not actually parasites.

“”Kleptoparasitism or cleptoparasitism (literally, parasitism by theft) is a form of feeding in which one animal takes prey or other food from another that has caught, collected, or otherwise prepared the food, including stored food (as in the case of cuckoo bees, which lay their eggs on the pollen masses made by other bees). The term is also used to describe the stealing of nest material or other inanimate objects from one animal by another.”      SOURCE

Despite this behaviour which some dislike they are a good indicator of the level of solitary bee activity where they are located for without them they can’t exist.

As can be seen in the photo Oil beetles often attract small midges which feed on the oil produced by the beetle but do it no harm.

Rugged Oil Beetle Meloe rugosus,  Mediterranean Oil Beetle Meloe mediterraneus and the Short-necked Oil beetle  Meloe brevicollis are some other well known but scarcer French Oil Beetles.

If in the UK Buglife are running a survey on Oil Beetles and would appreciate your help. 



Wednesday 18 March 2015

Horned Osmia ( Osmia cornuta )

Osmia cornuta is one of the first solitary bees to emerge in spring and as such is an important pollinator of fruit trees such as apricots, plums and almonds. Present in most of Europe, (not the north), it is a species that has disappeared from most areas of intensive agriculture, but it survives well in some urban areas, wastelands, public parks and gardens in particular areas. 

Given this living where we do in the intensive cereal lands I was extremely pleased to see a group of these about midday buzzing around the table on the patio in the sunshine. At first I thought they were Osmia bicolor with their bright orange abdomens and black head and thorax, not easy to see when they don’t settle. Anyway, a little later Lynne called me to say that a couple were kindly putting on a performance for me on the table and providing a photo opportunity. 

Please Click on images to enlarge. 

They are closely related to both Osmia bicolor the Two Coloured Mason Bee and Osmia rufa, the Red Mason Bee and they behave in much the same manner. The female builds a nest in an elongated hole, often in an old branch or some other piece of timber. The majority of the holes are between 5 to 8 mm in diameter and the nest is formed with a series of cells separated by clay partitions. Each cell contains a food reserve formed by a ball of pollen and nectar, on which an egg is laid. If the gallery is too long, a dirt cap is raised by the female to reduce its size. As a generalist pollen collector they will use what ever is available according to season, this is taken to the nest and mixed with regurgitated nectar to make the so called bee bread which is made into a pellet stuffed into the cavity.  When the cell is half full following 10 to 30 trips, the female lays an egg and builds a front wall with some clay and then repeats this until the tunnel is full with up to 15 eggs and then seals the outside with a clay plug. She repeats this for about two months building one nest after the other.

When the eggs hatch the one that were laid first which are to be females develop more slowly. When fully grown the larva spins a light brown thread cocoon and transforms into a pupa.

The bee is fully formed in late summer but remains where it is until the following spring.

The mortality rate is very high; perhaps 60% or more never get to fly and in part this is caused by Cocoxenus indagator, is which a ‘fruit fly’ and a cleptoparasite of Osmia species that lays its own eggs in the bees nest when the bee is away foraging. Having said that it’s built in to the numbers of eggs produced so nothing to be concerned about as long as the habitat requirements are met. 

Places used for nests include - Hollow stems; Galleries in walls, soft stones or soil; Gaps in window frames and drainage holes; Old galleries dug by other species of Hymenoptera; Natural or artificial galleries in timber with holes of a diameter of 8 to 10 mm; Sometimes even snail shells as with Osmia Bicolor. Galleries are thoroughly cleaned before any eggs are laid and can be used almost indefinitely. All of these locations are available at our place and with no chemicals or poisons they should go on to thrive.

Definitely one to look out for in France.