Monday 5 October 2020

Sexton or Burying beetles in France


Our house is full of places where animals live and overall we are happy with that and it rarely causes any actual harm although occasionally something dies which needless to say can smell a bit.

Fortunately, as always, the natural world is well equipped to deal with any small corpses that are inaccessible, (as they invariably are), and Burying or Carrion beetles are one of the insects that make their living from such things. There are some 20 odd species in France with a total of 30 species in Europe although not all are true burying beetles; some of them eat fungi or rotting vegetation.   

This year in September we were finding Nicrophorus vespillo in one part of our house and I would speculate that they had been on a dead Loir, (Edible Dormouse), probably behind the bath or false wall in the downstairs bathroom, one of the places where they frequently live. These amazing beetles can smell a corpse from a vast distance using the highly sensitive hairs on the ends of their club ended antennae. Having found a corpse, usually that of a small mammal, both male and female set about preparing it for use, sometimes excavating below it to bury it or even moving it if it’s small enough. Hairs or feathers are removed as are any eggs or larvae of other species, (flies etc), and the body is shaped into a ball where the beetles eggs are laid around it. Both parents feed and care for the young larvae when they hatch and this can last for up to 10 days before the young can consume the corpse directly. This feeding of the young larvae by adults is very rare in the insect world and is normally associated with social or colony forming species such as honey bees, wasps and ants. In addition to this unusual behaviour the parents are known to regulate the number of larvae in relationship to the quantity of food available on the carcass by removing and killing some larvae if there is a shortage of food or laying more eggs if there is plenty, thus having larvae of different ages on the same corpse. Larvae pupate in the soil or debris under the corpse before emerging between 20 and 30 days later.


Nicrophorus vespillo, burying beetle with mites in France
Nicrophorus vespillo with mites

As with some other insects, notably some Bumble bee species, these Burying beetles carry with them several species of phoretic mites that use the beetle as transport from one corpse to another. The relationship between these mites and the beetles has generally been thought to be benign but there is extensive research continuing on what the actual relationships and effects are. Needless to say it’s too complicated a subject for me and to go into here but I’ve put a link below and to a great video. 


LINK Phoretic mites and beetles 

LINK  Video burying beetle at work and larvae

Tuesday 8 September 2020

Bees killing hornets in France

I know it is stating the obvious but every year is different in the natural world and no two years can be the same, however this is becoming increasingly exaggerated.

Habitat loss, agricultural methods and climate change along with other factors are causing rapid major changes for our native species requiring them to adapt or perhaps in some cases disappear completely.

For some species this is creating opportunities and they have expanding populations that are sometimes associated with an expansion in their range. However for most species there are accelerating declines and this in turn leads to changes of behaviour as species attempt to adapt.

Where I live most insect species have been in overall decline for the last 25 years and this year has been abysmal for them but I want to talk specifically about hornets. 

Following the usual slow start as nests were established and populations grew I started to see a gradual increase in both Asian and European hornets in the 2nd half of July and there are presently sizeable numbers of both around the hives and where the bees take water. Of course it’s to be expected that the Asian hornets would be behaving like this but it’s the native European hornets that are behaving differently in so much as they are concentrating their activity on taking honey bees. They always do take some but this is different and I can only speculate that it’s the shortage of all the usual insects they take to feed their larvae. This in turn is putting them more in harms way than would otherwise be the case and I have been finding several dead European hornets in front of hives.

Unlike the Asian hornets that keep their distance I have noticed that our native hornets tend to get very close to the hive entrance, even briefly landing on it, so it was no surprise that when putting the mouse guards back on the hives for winter the other day I saw a European hornet mobbed by a mass of guard bees when it got too close to the hive entrance. The hornet didn't stand a chance but it was 45 minutes before the bees were finally satisfied that they had dealt with her.

Amazingly no bees died in the process.


Friday 28 August 2020

Ferrets and hunting with ferrets in France

In France the ferret has the status of domestic animal which is guaranteed to it by the order of August 11, 2006, issued by the Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, and as such anyone can own a ferret as a pet.

However the use of ferrets for hunting creature such as rabbits is regulated in law and can only be practiced during the periods specified by the Prefecture each year.

The followings departements also require an individual permit to be issued by the Prefecture.
Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Hautes-Alpes, Alpes-Maritimes, Ariège, Ardèche, Aude, Aveyron, Bouches-du-Rhône, Cantal, Charente, Corrèze, South Corsica, Côtes d'Armor, Creuse, Dordogne, Finistère, Gard, Haute Garonne, Haute-Corse, Hérault, Haute-Loire, Hautes-Pyrénées, Haute-Savoie, Haute-Vienne, Gers, Gironde, Landes, Lot, Lot et Garonne, Lozère, Morbihan, Puy de Dôme, Pyrénées-Atlantiques,, Pyrénées-Orientales, Tarn et Garonne, Var, Vaucluse.

It can be required to state the exact locality(s) where this is to take place and requires the permission of the landowner


Saturday 25 July 2020

Chafers and Honeybees in France

The other day a chap on a French Beekeeping Face book group posted a photo of a beetle trying to get into one of his hives.   His initial reaction having “Googled” was that it may have been a Large hive beetle, Oplostomus fuligineus, a species that is found in Africa and although this has not yet been recorded in France we can’t be sure where anything is going to turn up these days. New non native species seem to arrive on almost a weekly basis in France and the Small hive beetle, Aethina tumida, another non native, has been found in Italy but as of this moment hasn’t reached France.

Anyway it was clearly a Chafer, that much was indisputable but not a Large hive beetle. I was sure, (ha,ha,ha), at first that it was dark Rose Chafer beetle due to its general appearance and size, (close to 2cm). However I couldn’t find any evidence of Rose Chafers trying to enter hives and although they are plentiful at our place, (Rose chafers and hives), I have never seen them on my hives so I started to deepen my search for any examples of this. After much searching and changing search terms I finally came up with some examples of where peoples hives had been invaded by chafers, but not Rose Chafers but Protaetia morio known as la Cétoine noire. In many ways they look like dark Rose chafers, they are 1.3 to 2 cm long, the dorsal surface is dull, blackish to brownish with small ochre spots more or less marked, or even absent, on the pronotum and aligned transversely on the elytra. Although the greatest populations are to be found in the Mediterranean zone they are present to some extent in almost all other regions of France. Other than the fact that they are attracted to honey their behaviour and life cycle is much the same as the Rose chafer, feeding on thistles, knapweeds etc with larval development in rotting wood and fibrous soil.  

Click on images to enlarge

It seems that the observations of them entering honey bee colonies take place in July and August and if the beetles are numerous they can cause severe disruption for the bees which can’t eject them as the beetles bodies and wing cases are too hard for a bee sting to penetrate. In the case of a hive it should be a simple case of using a hornet guard to keep them out but we can assume that they have developed this behaviour over thousands of years by entering natural colonies in trees.


Wednesday 20 May 2020

May bug – Cockchafers - Hanneton commune and Hanneton forestier in France.

Hardly extraordinary I can hear people thinking but the other day I saw a May bug here, first one in several years. In fact in the 25 years we have been here there have only been a couple of years when I have seen them.  

A May bug or Cockchafer generally refers to Melolontha melolontha or the Common Cockchafer but there is an almost identical species in France with which they could be confused which is the Forest cockchafer, Melolontha hippocastani, which is a species found in woodlands.  

Generally Melolontha melolontha is considered an to be  an agricultural pest and they were brought almost to the point of extinction in the arable areas of France following the use of chemical insecticides such as DDT and Lindane. Both of these caused massive environmental harm before being banned from use. In the 19th century prior to insecticides being available the beetles were collected by hand to be killed, a process called “hannetonnages” that had some effectiveness even if a little laborious. Schoolchildren would sometimes be enlisted to perform this task where they would place sheets under the hedgerows in the morning and shake them out, collecting them in containers. Back at school the chafers would be weighed and some payment made by the kilo, a kilo roughly equalling 1,200 chafers. We can only dream of such numbers these days.

Since the 1970’s their numbers have slowly recovered on pasture land. However where intensive arable farming is practiced they are few and far between as almost every available piece of land is cultivated and constantly ploughed. This practice makes it close to impossible for them to complete their life cycle as any larvae, in the unlikely event that there should be any, are constantly bought to the surface and exposed to the birds that follow the tractors. This only leaves the roadside verges and any small uncultivated parcels of land. The situation has been made worse by the removal by the EU some 15 years or so ago of the requirement for farmers to leave a percentage of land fallow. This resulted from the misconceived idea that bio fuels are more important than habitat, a decision that has caused and is causing untold harm to a vast range of species.   


Friday 24 January 2020

Beaver in Nord pas de Calais for the first time in 150 years

The presence of Beavers has been confirmed in the area around Val-Joly, in the Avesnois, Nord-Pas-de-Calais after 150 years of absence. More than 20 trees have been found with the distinctive pencil cutting and fur traps have provided DNA evidence.

The beavers will have crossed the border from Wallonie, (Belgium), where they were released in the early 2000’s by activists where they have apparently expanded at an extraordinary rate both in numbers and territory covered in the canals and rivers that crisscross the region.

Unlike the recent discovery in Pyrénées-Atlantiques which is likely to have been a clandestine release this will be a natural progression and should provide a basis for continued expansion throughout the region.

Monday 11 November 2019

Freshwater jellyfish in France.

This summer we experienced a very long period of drought and two scorching heat waves which are probably the reason for an unusual and little known phenomenon to occur in the Vienne departement along with other parts of west and southwest France! These were exactly the right conditions when the water warms sufficiently for the emergence of a tiny freshwater jellyfish, craspedacusta sowerbii.  

They are normally only seen when they take the form of a small bell-shaped jellyfish known as a hydromedusa and float near the surface of the water but this requires a water temperature of at least 25°C and forms only one part of their interesting lifecycle.

As a jellyfish they are 20–25 mm in diameter, somewhat flatter than a hemisphere, and very delicate. They have a whorl of up to 400 tentacles tightly packed around the bell margin. Hanging down from the center of the inside of the bell is a large stomach structure called a manubrium, with a mouth-opening and four frilly lips. Food is taken in and waste  expelled through the mouth opening.
Click photo to enlarge

Craspedacusta sowerbyi more often exist as microscopic podocysts (dormant "resting bodies"), frustules (larvae produced asexually by budding), planulae (larvae produced sexually by the hydromedusae), or as sessile polyps, which attach to stable surfaces and can form colonies consisting of two to four individuals and measuring 5 to 8 mm.

This species, originally from China (Yangtze River Basin), probably originally arrived in Europe with aquatic plants imported for botanical gardens. In the ponds of Kew Gardens, near London, it was discovered in 1880 by the naturalist William Sowerby. Since then, it has conquered every continent thanks to the trade in aquarium plants.

In France they can be found in slow moving rivers, lakes and ponds, maybe even your garden pond if they have been transported there with pond plants or stuck to birds’ feet.  Should you come across them you need not worry, they present no danger to humans or other mammals.