Tuesday 18 September 2018

Map Butterfly - Carte géographique 2018, Blanzay, France

16th September 2018

Overall this year has been very poor at our place for butterflies and moths with even our usual common species such as Speckled Wood, Meadow Brown, Large and Small Whites, Peacocks, Gatekeepers, Marbled Whites and Red Admirals all in short supply.

Early in the summer both types of Swallowtail made brief appearances as did Painted Ladies, a handful of Common Blue and Holly Blues whilst in June Some Lesser Purple Emperors graced us with their presence, always welcome as they come down from the treetops to search for minerals that they usually get from any excrement that is to be found. 

Click photos to expand.

Above -  Lesser Purple Emperor on dog excrement.

Anyway, the purpose of this little note is to mention one butterfly species that have been abundant here this year, in fact exceptionally so and that is the Map Butterfly, Araschnia levana, a pretty little butterfly that has two distinct forms, Araschnia.f. levana and Araschnia.f. prorsa that represent the spring and summer broods respectively. levana individuals are primarily orange in colour, giving them the appearance of a small fritillary, whereas prorsa individuals look more like a very small White Admiral and many people confuse them as such.

Above - Map butterflies 2nd generation

The eggs are laid in little strings bunched together under nettle leaves which are the caterpillar food plant in shaded or partially shaded areas. Late season caterpillars overwinter as pupae that emerge in the following April/May providing the first generation butterflies. The 2nd generation flies from June to August. In the South and Southwest of France a third generation may be produced in some years. The caterpillars in some stages bear some resemblance to Peacock caterpillars that share the same food plant of nettles so it’s worth a closer look.

 Above- Map butterfly caterpillar & Eggs

As mentioned there have never been so many here before for what has previously been a scarce species at our place where we rarely see more than a few in a season and it’s hard to see what if anything has changed. 

It is a species that may be benefitting from climate change, who knows? I'll see what happens next year.


Saturday 8 September 2018

Buckwheat and Phacelia late cover crop in France

8th September 2018

It’s no exaggeration to say that increasingly the arable lands of France are becoming environmental wastelands as the same crops are grown time and time again, often on the same land with no rotation and an ever-increasing input of chemical fertilisers and use of pesticides. Manure from cattle and goat sheds is often added to the land in a raw form without being composted which greatly reduces its usefulness and in recent years with the growth in industrial poultry farming and egg production, the vast quantities of waste from these processes are often used. Even if we leave aside the manner in which livestock is treated these days the use of the waste in such a manner, whilst it may have apparent short-term gain, leads to imbalances in the soil that is already little more than compacted dust.

The main autumn sown crops of barley, wheat and oilseed rape tend to be harvested by the end of July with maize and sunflowers usually harvested in September and October. Other crops are grown in very much smaller quantities such as Buckwheat, Hemp, Tobacco, Sorghum, Fodder Peas, Field Beans, Alfalfa and others. A more concise list will be provided at a later date with their uses as well as any benefits or negative effects on the wider environment.

Click images to expand.

Photos above of dry August fields in France with not a flower to be seen.

A major problem is that by the start of August there are no flowers, or very few, and only vast expanses of bare ground or crops, (maize and sunflower), that are turning brown. Overall this leaves the environment seriously depleted of anything to provide nourishment for other species whatever they may be and we have all seen the reports of the decline in bird and insect numbers.

As a Beekeeper as well as being passionate about the environment and our native species I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that I find the situation disheartening at times but this isn’t a groan or a moan, it’s about simple things that can change everything and in understanding that we can make things better, not ideal or perfect, just a bit better.

One such action took me by surprise 3 or 4 weeks ago when following the wheat harvest one of the local farmers sowed a field of around 20 to 25 hectares with a buckwheat and phacelia mix as a cover crop. This is something completely new around here and the difference it has made is outstanding and not just for my bees and all the other honeybee colonies in the close proximity.   

Photo above of field with buckwheat and phacelia

This mixture sown as a cover crop has a range of benefits and is ideal in this situation; both are fast growing and accept poor low fertility soils.
Buckwheat starts to flower in 3 to 4 weeks following sowing and continues for 3 to 4 weeks.
Phacelia is somewhat slower to mature and starts flowering in about 6 to 8 weeks following sowing and can continue for another 6 to 8 weeks.  

Photos above - Buckwheat on top, Phacelia beneath.

Both plants prevent nitrate leaching and take up useful minerals that are incorporated back into the soil when turned in and they both produce abundant biomass as well as acting as weed suppressants.  Of particular interest is the ability of Buckwheat to solubilise and take up phosphorus that is otherwise unavailable to crops and then release these nutrients to later crops as the residue breaks down.

The wildlife value when sown in late summer cannot be overstated at this critical time of year when little if anything else is flowering. They have incredibly high nectar and pollen production that provides for honeybees, solitary bees and bumblebees as well as hoverflies, butterflies and a vast range of other insects many of which provide valuable food for other species and of course the swallows as they prepare for their long migration.

If all arable farmers did the same with part of their land the cumulative effect could go some way towards helping prevent the continuing declines we have been witnessing in recent years. I will certainly be saying a big Merci to the farmer when I see him next in the hope he may continue or even expand this process in future years. 


Thursday 18 January 2018

Hedgehogs in France and their decline.

Extraordinary as it may seem the French hedgehog population has declined by some two thirds during the course of the last 20 years or so with an average of some 2 million killed each year and although they are still captured illegally to be eaten by Romany people, however interesting that may be, it would be wrong to hold them responsible for something that is much closer to home for all of us.

Hedgehogs in France and their decline


Saturday 28 October 2017

Gendarmes are also Red and Black bugs, (Fire bugs), in France, not just Police personnel.

Fire bug
Pyrrhocoris apterus
le Pyrrhocore or Gendarme

Many will know this highly successful common bug by the name of Gendarme or perhaps, depending on the region, names such as Suisse, Soldat, Punaise rouge, Cherche-midi or Punaise au corps de feu, all of which are widely used French vernacular names for this colourful insect.

As most people will have noticed the "gendarmes" are gregarious and as such live in colonies, which can be described as "gendarmeries", and can number several hundred or even thousands of individuals. Their Black and Red colouration apparently contains a substance that gives them some immunity from predation and as such they make no attempt to hide and even have a very pronounced propensity for collective sunbathing, hence the name of "Cherche-midi". Even in winter on a warm day a sunny stone wall or tree trunk will see them out and about.

Click on photos to enlarge

Being well equipped defensively the gendarmes are totally devoid of olfactory cells that provide the "fatal weapon" of many so-called "stink bugs" in the excretion of noxious smells when threatened.  

Congregations will frequently be seen at the base of walls, the bottom of hedges and they will often be seen at the foot of trees, especially Lime trees, (Tilia), as they have a taste for the seeds.  The seeds of Hollyhocks, Mallows and Hibiscus are also especially tempting for them and additionally they will eat dead and dying insects.

Fire bug or Gendarme eating a dead bee
Eating a dead bee

They, as with all hemipterans, are equipped with a rostrum which is a beak-like projection that can reach nearly half its body length. These mouthparts are distinctive, with mandibles and maxillae modified to form a piercing "stylet" sheathed within a modified labium.

In the case of the Fire bug the sharp needle can be used to pierce hard seeds allowing saliva to be pumped into the interior with enzymes that make the nutrition available to be sucked up as food. When not in use it is folded back under its body and as such is rarely seen or not recognised for what it is. Other true bug species may use this for killing prey or defensively. 

Coupling usually takes place from April until August in France and they can be seen joined in pairs in a copulation that can last more than 24 hours. There is no biological requirement for this and one could speculate that the male is preventing other males from mating.  Batches of around 50 white eggs are laid and hidden under or in anything handy, a stone, a piece of wood, a fissure in a tree, anything will do. These take about 2 weeks to hatch into tiny yellow larval nymphs with dark heads that rapidly change colour to orange, then red and then red and black as they develop.

Whatever their stage of development they cause no harm to living plants or insects and are no cause for concern to humans although there is an outside chance that one could prick you with its rostrum if handled but why would you handle one in the first place unless you are like me.

NOTE:  There are quite a few other species of red and black shield bugs to be found in France but are unlikely to be found in such numbers. 

Monday 23 October 2017

Praying Mantis in France - Mantis religiosa

Although the vast majority of Mantis species have their homes in tropical and sub-tropical climates France plays host to a dozen species most of which are in the Mediterranean region, some quite rare and only found in the coastal band.  However the one that most people are familiar with, the Praying Mantis Mantis religiosa, can be found throughout all of France and much of continental Europe as far north as Denmark.

Without doubt people will be drawn to their two bulbous complex eyes but like many insects they also have three small simple eyes located between them which largely go unnoticed by most people. Although called “simple” they aren’t at all simple. (Human beings have “simple” eyes see link at the end).   Their triangular head has powerful mandibles and can rotate through almost 180° allowing them to remain motionless while looking around.  Their vernacular name comes from the manner in which they hold their spectacular forelegs with hands joined as if in prayer. The importance of these strangely developed forelegs is to defend against attack and to grab and hold prey, never for walking although they may be used in climbing to pull themselves up or hang on.  The males will also use their forelegs to hold the female during copulation. Although rarely seen they also have beautiful wings and can make short flights.  

Click on photos to enlarge.

Mantis with wings showing having just landed after a short flight

Brown Praying Mantis

Their Life Cycle is an incomplete metamorphosis, egg, stages of nymph and then adult. They reach adulthood in late summer and mating takes place in August and September when the females release what is known as an Oothecae or Egg case. This is slowly forced out by the genital valves in the form of a mousse which hardens rapidly on contact with the air. In it will be contained some 200 to 300 eggs which will remain there until the following June when the nymphs will emerge in a thin membrane from the central band running down the egg case. This is quickly shed at which stage they already look just like very tiny adults and as they grow they will shed their skin another 6 times before reaching adulthood. Their wings fully develop just before the final moult. The adults die from late October until early December depending on region and weather conditions. 

Mantis releasing egg sack

Mantis egg sack when hardened

Mantis that has just shed skin

The shed skin of the above mantis

Mantis eating a fly

The act of mating itself can last many hours and although it isn’t always the case the female can and will eat the much smaller male when he has served his purpose, photo below.  

Female eating male following copulation 

Preferred habitat is rough grassland and scrub but gardens even in towns can be equally attractive for them provided they are insecticide free.

Diet is rich and varied with prey being captured using the forelegs which are armed with a series of angled spines that prevent the prey escaping. In their initial nymph stages they will eat aphids, baby spiders and other small insects but as they grow they take larger insects, flies, butterflies, bumble bees, solitary bees, anything in fact that settles within range of their forelegs. Even instances of small birds and hatchling snakes being eaten have been recorded.

Mantis eating one of my honey bees on a hive front

One more point is that there appears to be no obvious environmental reason for some being brown and some being green, both colours will be found in the same habitat and for both sexes and they will breed with each other.

LINK Simple eye.


Saturday 21 October 2017

French Honey bee swarm in August - too late to survive?

Honeybee swarms that issue from colonies that live in hollow trees, cavities in stone walls, roof spaces and such like are always of interest to me as they have invariably developed the ability to survive without all the treatments and manipulations that beekeepers generally use and to my mind these are the survivor bees we need for the future.

This little piece is about one such swarm…….

To my surprise I was called to a bee swarm on the 18th August this year which is extremely late in the season but these things do happen and after asking the caller a few questions to verify it really was a swarm of bees I prepared a ruchette, (which is a small hive or nuc box in English), popped it in the car and set off.

Sure enough, when I arrived there was the small swarm clustered close to the ground attached to an Oleander shrub about 20 metres from the persons’ house where it had come from. Remarkably the roof of the house has three separate bee colonies in it, one on each eave and one in the ridge and they have apparently been there for several years which goes some way to disproving the widely held view that left to themselves honey bees won’t nest close together – these are no more than 6 or 7 metres apart in total.

Click photos to enlarge

A small swarm at that time of year will almost certainly be a swarm that the colony has produced in addition to its main or prime swarm that will have been larger and earlier in the year. The conventional wisdom is that secondary swarms or after-swarms are issued in the first week or so following the prime swarm and contain a virgin Queen and although normally the first virgin Queen to hatch will kill the others in their cells before they hatch this isn’t always the case and exceptionally over a period of some weeks there could possibly be a 3rd, 4th or even 5th swarm all lead by a Virgin Queen if the issuing colony is severely restricted for space or genetically inclined to swarm which can apparently be the case. There are other reasons put forward for after-swarms but that isn’t really important here as this particular very small swarm had a mated Queen and didn’t issue until the 18th August, (April – June being the normal time period for swarming here).

Housing the swarm in the Ruchette was easy with a little persuasion following which I took them back to my place.

Next there is the tricky matter of giving them a fighting chance of becoming a viable colony at this late stage of the year, something they would be unlikely to have without help. When a swarm moves into its new home it has nothing, no comb, no stores and no brood. This is a period when the bees must work hard and fast in constructing comb, fetch both nectar and pollen to enable the raising of new bees. Even if conditions are good it will be nearly 4 weeks before there will be any new bees during which time the size of the colony will be diminishing as bees die. In this case that would take us to the middle of September when the season is more or less finished apart from Ivy, a few garden flowers and perhaps some flowering cover crops / green manures, phacelia, mustard, fodder radish being the most widely grown, certainly not enough for so few bees to provide themselves with winter stores.

With this in mind the following morning I immediately put a top feeder on with syrup and continued keeping it topped up every day until the beginning of October when I started giving them slightly diluted honey using a simple modification to the inner cap of the feeder by drilling some holes in it to make the honey available to the bees.

All this feeding has given the bees the ability to increase their colony size and bring the ruchette up to winter weight with stores of honey before the end of October. All I can do now hope that they will get through the winter, especially as they are from an unmanaged colony which as I mentioned at the outset tend to have good survival traits.  

Fingers crossed, Chris

Hawk moths in France - a simple guide

In the UK the Sphingidae family of moths are commonly called Hawk moths and in France they all use the word Sphinx as part of their common name.

The simple list that is linked gives their names in English, Latin and French, the caterpillar food plant, annual generations and migratory status, (if any), and a link to photos & distribution for each species on Lepinet.