Sunday, 28 February 2016

Soya bean cultivation in France

As if things weren’t bad enough already Soya seems set to be the latest money generator for the people that exploit the cereal lands of France 

Click on photos to enlarge

It was some 30 years ago that Soya bean trials were first made in my region of Poitou-Charentes but at that time it wasn’t economically worthwhile and it was cheaper to import from abroad. As the dominate producers, (Brazil, Argentina and the United States), moved to growing Genetically Modified Soya and imports swelled as a result of an ever increasing demand from the industrial production of both meat and poultry some thought there was an opportunity to try growing Soya again. With this in mind Eric Simon of the animal food manufacturer Alicoop, Pamproux along with some others approached Ségolène Royal, (then President of the Region), to provide assistance via additional Regional subsidies alongside those available from the CAP, (Common Agricultural Policy), for this crop. With the market price and subsidies combined it’s more profitable than sunflowers and in a couple of years regional production has exceeded 2000 hectares and is set to grow exponentially.

On the plus side it is a crop that like sunflowers can manage without irrigation. It also has no requirements for fungicides or insecticides, fixes nitrogen from the air in its root nodules and provides an alternative to the Genetically Modified alternatives that are imported, all of which in different circumstances would deserve our support.

So what’s the problem?

The simple answer is the vexed issue of the continuing decline of pollinators as a result of every last piece of half viable land being turned to the plough which was already bad enough in itself but it did at least have the small virtue of sunflowers that have usually been grown as the 4th crop that has to make up no less than 5% of the land surface of any given crop producer. If Soya replaces Sunflowers, of which there is every likelihood, it will leave much of the French countryside almost devoid of food in the summer for bees whether they are Honey bees, Bumble bees or Solitary species. The one thing Soya doesn’t have is flowers that open, they are small, remain closed and internally self pollinate. Add this to the other crops that are already grown over the largest land areas, that are wind pollinated and have no nectar, wheat, barley and maize and it’s clear that it’s an expanding “green desert”, pleasing on eye to those that don’t understand but a catastrophe for our pollinating insects.


Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The so called Flow Hive.

As this is a subject that isn’t going away and keeps being brought to light, (usually but not always by people that have little or no experience of keeping bees), I thought I should attempt a response of my own that I can use as and when required that makes my position and views clear.


Firstly for people that have no practical experience of beekeeping it should be noted that the structure that matters in this instance it isn’t actually a hive but what we beekeepers call a “super” in English or la hausse in French. This is a supplementary box that goes on top of a hive to enable the beekeeper to collect honey that is in excess to the colonies requirements. The fact that they can also supply a hive to go with it is neither here nor there as it’s the supplementary box and its constituent parts that are different. This supplementary box for honey production is usually separated from the hive proper with a grill that keeps the Queen in the hive itself.

My first objection may not seem very important to some people and that is that the device relies on artificial pre-formed honey comb structures made entirely from plastic when the natural situation would be bees making comb with their own wax.

These plastic frames are designed to shift vertically along the center (or midrib) of the honeycomb structure. This is operated by turning a key that shifts the midrib breaking open the back of the cells containing honey which then theoretically drains backward, drips down the back of the plastic frame and is captured in a trough that leads to a tube that drains to the outside and into your jars or other containers of choice.  Once the comb is drained, you turn the key again which shifts the comb back into its original position when the bees supposedly chew open the wax seals on the front of the comb and refill them assuming somehow the bees know that the cells have been emptied from the back?  All of this is achieved without removing the lid or removing and exposing the comb and bees to the air.

All sounds wonderful but then the sales spin always does.

The first thing is that honey cells need to be filled and sealed with wax by the bees before the honey is ready to be extracted and stored. Taking honey before this has happened will usually mean that the water content is too high thus leading to fermentation, (more than 19%).

Now they make much of how kind this system is to the bees because there is no requirement to remove the lid and remove the frames. They claim that it’s possible to see if the cells are sealed simply by looking through the glazed side but anyone with experience will know this simply isn’t true. As you can see from the photo the faces of the frames simply aren’t visible even from the top with the lid removed which means the frames have to be lifted out to see the entire faces.

Another concern for me is honey robbing.  Pictures on the Flow™ Hive site also show honey dripping from the hive into open jars with no bees in evidence when in reality any source of exposed honey would immediately attract thousands of bees and potentially trigger a robbing frenzy as other hives in the area rapidly discover free open air honey. Either way, you wouldn’t be sitting there with open honey without there being bees all over and in it. Anyone that doubts this should stand by a hive with a teaspoon of honey and watch the speed with which bees arrive.

Then there is the not so small matter of the nature of the honey and whether it would actually just run out or not. Again anyone with actual experience of keeping bees in most European countries will know that there are some types of honey, perhaps the majority, which simply won’t. Indeed there are some that can’t even be extracted by spinning out of the frame if they start to set in the frame, Oilseed rape being one of them which requires very precise timing for extraction and Heather honey is thixotropic and cannot even be spun out from the combs in an extractor and is usually pressed. These will clog and jam the mechanism requiring the Flowhive frames to be removed and cleaned with hot water.

Price?   Well if you want to spend over 500 US$ for a 7 frame flow hive when you can buy a regular Super with 9 waxed frames for €30 you must have money to burn.

So what if any are the benefits?

Zero as far as I can see, it won’t be less intrusive or kinder to the bees that much is clear and the super with the Flow frames will still need to be frequently removed, emptied of bees and cleaned. If your reason for buying this is because you are afraid of bees or you think it will make it easier you are mistaken.

If you really are determined to try one I reckon that if you wait there will be a glut of them on the market at knockdown prices when people realise they aren’t all they are cracked up to be, or on the other hand I may be wrong. 


Monday, 15 February 2016

Trapping Asian Hornets

You would be forgiven for thinking that people that keep bees would be concerned about the environment and the general well being of all creatures. Sadly this is often not the case; indeed many bee keepers make a living as so called pest destroyers.

Anyway as they say “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” and in this case bee keepers, bee keeping groups and other wildlife groups have been extolling the virtues of trapping Asian Hornets, especially in the early spring when the new queens are coming out of hibernation without thinking or considering the repercussions.

The traps that are usually based on the principle of a plastic bottle with a small entrance, often the inverted neck of the bottle, are suspended with a quantity of attractant added. There are various mixtures used but Brown beer, Cider and Cherry syrup mixes seem to be favoured, the argument being that this won’t attract honey bees. It will however attract European Hornets and our native social wasps which are suffering enough already and generally in decline even if you may not think so if you are at place where people are congregating to eat and consume sugary drinks in summer. Of course other insects and flies will also be drawn to the traps and suffer an unnecessary slow death. All of this shows a remarkable ignorance of the current situation of insects decline that is having a devastating effect on our wildlife. 

Of course there are selective ways to kill Asian Hornet Queens in the early spring but they require a little effort, but in my opinion that effort is well worth while if it means protecting our native species.

In early spring Bee keepers or individuals can try to kill as many Asian Hornet Queens as possible by hand. They will be easily lured to the slightest scent of honey and I find swatting them with a plastic tennis racket is the easiest method and we can then avoid killing European Hornets and other wasps. 


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.