Thursday, 27 June 2019

France and the banning of neonicotinoid insecticides

France Becomes The First Country To Ban All Five Pesticides Linked To Bee Deaths.

Most of us will have seen this or similarly worded headlines on a myriad of mainstream media sites, blogs, alternative information sites and sites that are simply click bait for advertising revenue. Many of these so called articles are full of sensational erroneous statements and speculations that have no factual or scientific foundation what so ever.

Large numbers of people will have liked, shared and commented on these pages without any idea of what the reality is or giving it any real thought.  Most of us do this at some time or another on social media because to do otherwise would be too time consuming.

So what actually is the reality?

Yes, France has banned the use of five types of neonicotinoid insecticides that by definition have been shown to cause harm to insects.  This is two more than the EU have banned, although countries frequently derogate from the ban in certain circumstances, most recently, (Dec 2018), Belgium and some other countries are allowing sugar beet growers to use Imidacloprid as a seed treatment for 2019.  Seed treatments have been by far the main method of delivery used here in France principally on Oil Seed Rape, Maize and Sunflowers. They were also used as foliar sprays on fruit crops of most types after flowering.

However, that is not the end of the story.  Neonicotinoids are still used in flea treatments for domestic creatures and in the house plant industry.

There is little point discussing just how much, if at all, the neonicotinoids that were used in France affected honeybees, which are, after all, generally a commercially managed species here in the same way that chickens and pigs are. Overall there has been no decline in honey bee colonies.

It is however highly likely that they have contributed in no small manner to the decline of many other insect and bee species by virtue of sub lethal doses adding one more stress factor. Having said that, it’s impossible to quantify exactly what role they played against the backdrop of massive habitat loss and the large scale use of other pesticides, (some 2,500 authorised in France).

Here comes the rub. Without meaning to sound churlish, banning the five neonicotinoids in itself isn’t that big a deal when it comes to protecting the environment and saving our wildlife populations as a whole. What the ban has brought about is a return to open spraying of other pesticides, (although fungicides have always been open sprayed).  The problem is particularly bad when it comes to OSR* where the crops are sprayed when in full flower. This not only impacts all the different insects that are foraging or living there but also all the birds that nest in or along the margins of this crop.  In particular Linnet, Stone Chat, Yellow Wagtail, Corn bunting, Yellowhammer, Hen Harrier and Montague’s Harrier. Hedgehogs may also be present and foraging although not during actual spraying.

Click on image to expand

In conclusion, although this ban may be beneficial it is nowhere near enough given France is one of the greatest users of pesticides in Europe, something that is increasing at a substantial rate year on year. Huge changes have to be made if we are “to save everything” and not simply shuffle the cards using the same deck and still be killing as many species. 

OSR – Oil Seed Rape.

Pesticides – an overall generic term now used for all “cides”. Insecticides, Herbicides, Fungicides,  Rodenticides and so on.


Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Log hive at a French Chateau

Chateau bees.

It’s not unusual to get called out to bee swarms and colonies between the windows and shutters of French houses. It is after all an ideal space if the shutters are closed.  The other day I was called to one in a Chateau, all very straight forward with a nice sized window for the Ruchette, (small hive box).

Victoria, the woman from the Chateau, wondered if they had come from the bees in the large section of Lime tree trunk from the tree that they had cut down in the late autumn.  Immediately she had my attention and so the story unfolded. It seems the tree had to be cut down as it had become dangerous having split in a storm. They insisted that the section with the bees in it be cut out in one large piece and this was later moved to a suitable location in the grounds with the open ends covered up to provide protection but with enough gaps for the bees to come and go. Walking down to where it was I was impressed by the size of it and although it was laid flat on the ground the bees had obviously made the necessary adjustments and were happily going about their business.

Click on images to enlarge.

Maybe not the standard idea of a log hive

Then it turns out there is another honeybee colony high up in one of the chateau towers walls which it seems is always occupied by bees. Of course this may not be a continuous occupation. More likely that from time to time the colony fails and the space attracts a future swarm as is usually the case.

Honeybee colony in the tower wall, entrance circled in red.

The colony that had set up home between the window and shutters was easy enough. They had been there a couple of weeks or probably a little more. Strangely there was quite a lot of brood but no honey and only a little pollen.  They are now safely in my apiary where they are very busy on the Sweet Chestnut that has just started to flower.

Ruchette in the widow, bees happily inside and waiting for me to take them away.

I must add that it’s a great joy to meet people that care about the other creatures we live with and make every effort to accommodate them. Their buildings and grounds are a little wildlife haven.


Thursday, 4 April 2019

Purple emperor and Lesser purple emperor butterflies in France

Purple emperor and Lesser purple emperor butterflies – a simplified life cycle and how to see them.

These two butterflies spend most of their time in the woodland canopy where they feed on aphid honeydew, or occasionally when they descend to feed on sap runs or, in the case of the male, animal droppings, carrion or moist ground that provide much needed salts and minerals which are generally the only times we get the chance to see them.

Click on images to expand 
Above - Male 
Above - Female 

Both species use willows, principally Goat willow, and in the case of the Lesser Purple Emperor poplars as well, especially Populus tremula, for their caterpillars to feed on.

Eggs are placed singly on leaves near the tree canopy and the caterpillars have an extraordinary life cycle that can last 300 days or more with various pauses between each instar change, the last before pupation being a long hibernation through winter in a crevice or branch fork wrapped in a little spun silk.  Pupation takes place in spring and adults fly from May.

Both species can be observed throughout France where there are woodlands or copses but are more numerous in the warmer parts of the country.

As mentioned above they are drawn to animal droppings, carrion or moist ground where they can access minerals and other salts and many people make up mixtures to attract them during the summer months. Most of these mixtures are fairly foul by human standards and frequently contain rotting shrimp and other seafood or fish such as sardine. Best put in a container for a week or two somewhere warm before being put out on the ground on a sunny morning in July or August. Dead animals and mammal excrement are also popular but maybe not something everyone would want in their garden.

Of course your success will be dependant on the butterflies being present which is one more good reason for growing Goat willow and even if you don’t have either species of Purple Emperor where you are these mixes will attract some other species of butterfly.

Have fun - Chris

Thursday, 21 March 2019

Assassin bug the Masked hunter, Reduvius personatus, in France

Masked hunter, Reduvius personatus,  Réduve masque

Found in most regions of France this member of the True bug family is known as an Assassin bug and due to its secretive nocturnal behaviour it tends to go unnoticed even when in your home.

They are especially fond of old houses, barns and outbuildings where they hunt other insects including bedbugs, silverfish, book lice and flies. However they will eat any number of small insects and can also be found in other habitats including woodland, scrub and grasslands but always avoiding the light. Where ever they are they are never in large numbers.

Although they bite and kill their prey by piercing them with their robust rostrum they rarely use this against humans unless handled roughly but if they do it isn't dangerous but can be extremely painful.

They spend the winter as juveniles and then breed in May or June having reached the adult stage.  During their development stages, (instars), they exude a sticky substance and coat themselves in dust and debris presumably to camouflage themselves.

Rather like the House Centipede they help maintain a balance in the home by predating on other insects even though you may not even be aware of their presence. 


Monday, 11 March 2019

Ladybirds in France including the Asian Harlequin Ladybird

Every year in autumn and spring there are articles in the media, especially in the UK, about the Asian Ladybird, Harmonia axyridis, or Harlequin Ladybird as it is known, one of several thousand different non native species introduced in both France and the UK although only a few are ladybirds. This species is generally regarded as the most invasive ladybird on Earth and although they undoubtedly have an environmental impact due to their high breeding and survival rate combined with their voracious appetite most experts are of the opinion that they are now so abundant that there is little if any point in killing them.

Harlequin ladybirds, above, are extremely variable but most have a clearly defined "M" or "W" on the pronotum.

Although they feed most commonly on aphids they have a wide food range that includes scale insects, adelgids, the eggs and larvae of butterflies and moths, many other small insects including other ladybirds, pollen, nectar, and sugary fluids, including honeydew and the juice from ripe fruits bringing them into direct competition with native species of Ladybird many of which are already under pressure resulting from all the usual reasons, habitat loss and pesticide use being uppermost.

The risk as always that comes from articles in the media and the consequent sharing on social media is that some people will unwittingly start killing anything that they don’t recognise as the stereotypical image of a Ladybird, generally the most common of which is the Red and Black spotted 7 spot ladybird, and there are too many people already locked into a “kill everything that isn’t a butterfly” mode of thinking.

To move on, there are 90 or more species of native Ladybird in France most of which wouldn’t be recognised as such. Some are brown, some black, some yellow and black, some black and red, some orange and perhaps not surprisingly many are highly selective about where they live and what they eat with many being vegetarian.

It would be difficult here to include that number of native species, so I have listed a few here to give some idea of just how different they are. 

Kidney-spot ladybird (Chilocorus renipustulatus) Black body with large red spot on each wing case, feeds on scale insects on the bark of trees.

Pine ladybird (Exochomus 4-pustulatus) Usually elytra are black with two larger red comma-shaped spots and two smaller red round or oval spots, feeds on aphids and scale insects.

Heather ladybird (Chilocorus 2-pustulatus) Black with 2 to 6 red spots feeds on scale insects.

16-spot ladybird (Tytthaspis 16-punctata) Beige with black spots. Feeds on Aphids, Pollen, nectar and fungi. Can overwinter in large numbers, 50 or more in one cluster.

Orange ladybird (Halyzia 16-guttata) Orange Ladybirds can be bright yellow or orange in colour with 16 creamy spots. Feeds on mildew.

22-spot ladybird (Psyllobora 22-punctata). Bright yellow with 22 black spots. Feeds on Mildews

24 spot ladybird (Subcoccinella vigintiquattuorpunctata) Sometimes known as the Alfalfa Ladybird. Orange –red, number of spots may vary. Feeds on a variety of plants including Campions, vetches, trefoils, chickweed and plantains among others. They will also take grasses and in France can be a pest of lucerne.

Hieroglyphic ladybird (Coccinella hieroglyphica) brown or black with black stripes, spots and patches. Feeds on larvae of Heather leaf beetle.

Bryony ladybird (Henosepilachna argus) Orange red with 11 black spots. Feeds on White bryony and plants of the Melon family.

28-spotted potato ladybird (Henosepilachna vigintioctopunctata) Orange with 28 spots feeds on the foliage of potatoes and other solanaceous crops.


Saturday, 9 March 2019

Pine processionary moth and hairy caterpillars in France

With the aid principally of social media in all its aspects the Pine processionary moth increasingly strikes fear into the population with all the stories about how dangerous they can be.

There is certainly no denying their harmful nature should someone or their pet animal come into close physical contact with them or breathe in their harmful hairs but we mustn’t let this lead us into a panic that results in the destruction of our other native hairy or web forming caterpillars that need all the protection that they can get.

The first thing to understand is that Pine processionary moth nests are always in Pine trees and only rarely in Fir trees. A caterpillar web anywhere else is a different type of caterpillar.

Secondly, when on the ground they will invariably be found in the classic processions “nose to tail” and only very rarely as individuals should they have been blown from the trees by storms.

Thirdly, they will only be found on the ground when Pine or Fir trees are in very close proximity.

Moving on to a few other web forming species with one that always causes undue worry and that is the Spindle Ermine Moth that form large webs on Spindle trees often completely covering them and stripping all the leaves. This usually occurs in early May when the first leaves are produced and despite it looking like a disaster zone more leaves are produced when the caterpillars descend to pupate and the tree busts back into life.  

Click on images to expand
Spindle Ermine Moth 
Another species that was once very common but now in decline principally due to hedgerow removal and poor management is the Small Eggar Moth.  The caterpillars form dense webs on Hawthorn and Blackthorn. Again the host plant recovers once the caterpillars have descended to pupate.   
Small Eggar Moth

Various species of Ermine moth can be found on apple trees and these again are harmless to the overall health of the tree and humans although they may cause damage to fruits should the web engulf them. 
Ermine moth species on Quince tree

There are of course many hairy caterpillars that don’t form nesting webs and all hairy caterpillars can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions but this would normally only be if they came in contact with sensitive areas of our skin or if someone was unusually sensitive. As children we used to have great fun putting them down each others shirts to cause itching. However that said they will have no effect on the harder surfaces of our skin such as our fingers and the palms of our hands. 

I’ll provide a small selection here of some of the more common species that people are likely to come across and I can't emphasise enough the need to care for all our native species that are struggling so much. Without caterpillars and moths a huge number of other species will starve without enough to eat. One Blue Tit chick alone can eat up to 100 caterpillars a day.
Brown Tail Moth
Fox Moth
Garden Tiger Moth
Garden Tiger Moth
Oak Eggar Moth
Pale Tussock Moth
Ruby Tiger Moth
Cream spot Tiger


Friday, 8 March 2019

New Bat species for France - Myotis crypticus

Le Murin cryptique  Myotis crypticus   Feb 2019

A new species of bat has been discovered in wooded areas of Italy, France, Switzerland and Spain.

This brings the number of species to be found in France
To 35

It is very close to Natterer's bat (Myotis nattereri) and positive identification has so far relied on DNA analysis. Despite their closeness they do not hybridise. 

Reproduction colonies are usually in hollow trees but can be in artificial man made structures. Hibernation takes place underground in fissures. Much remains to be known about this species.