Spying on the bees as they go about their outdoor pursuits has become something of a passion, and stalking them as they forage round and about the house has opened my eyes to all the various snacking places on offer.
Some of these floral opportunities are ravaged in the wink of an eye, others last a little longer. It certainly surprises me how quickly a tree / flower / shrub can be devoided of pollen.
The two main areas of activity this month have been the fruit orchard and the box trees.
In the orchard it started with the almond trees, and then the wild, flowering plums. We have two, young, purple-leaved Prunus trees, which have pink flowers, and then a host of a white blossomed varity, which must have been here for decades.
Honey bee on Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera “Nigra”)
The blossom on the old ornamental plum trees makes it appear as if the snow has returned. In summer, these bear heaps of small plums, which look fabulous but sadly are not good for eating (not even for making jams or chutneys).
Honey Bee on ornamental plum (Prunus cerasifera)
fruit of the wild plum
Regarding the box (Buxus sempervirens), there are several smaller shrubs in the garden and one large tree, about 3 metres tall – Im guessing that that too has been around for decades.
The box tree is monoecious – plants have their male and female parts on separate flowers, but together on the same plant. Flowers are green and grow in clusters in the leaf axils. Each cluster contains several male (staminate) flowers with conspicuous whitish-yellow anthers, and a terminal female flower containing a three-celled ovary.
Honey bees on Box – the staminate flowers visible (anther and filament)
Buxus flowers are not showy, but are quite fragrant. The female (pistillate) flower is small, star shaped and yellowish green. The star points are actually sepals – boxwood flowers have no petals.
Just opposite the kitchen window is a southerly facing bank, which is covered in a thick carpet of wildflowers and weeds, with a hint of grass. At midday, it is a mass of colour, very picturesque, and is attracting a multitude of wildlife – especially bees.
With all the buzzing, it doesn’t take a detective to track down some of the visitors. Especially when they are relatively large and sporting black and yellow furry stripes (with a cute white bottom)…
Bumblebee on Red Dead-nettle (Lamium purpureum)
There are one or two honey bees in the mix, gleaning every little they can. Most of their sisters are over at the box tree, which is currently pollen central (more of that in another post).
Honey bee on Common Field-speedwell (Veronica persica).
my new friend, the Carpenter Bee
and finally, something new to me, even though it is apparently one of the most common bumblebee species, here is the Common Carder Bee. It is medium-sized, has a long tongue and nests on the surface of the ground…
Last night we went to the cinema to watch a new documentary – Des Abeilles et Des Hommes (also called More Than Honey), reporting the decline in bee populations, and the multiple possible reasons behind this phenomenon. Swiss film producer Marcus Imhoof, journeys around the globe filming folk closely involved in bee-keeping – apiarists, honey producers, hive transporters, pollen gatherers etc, and each tells their story. The film lasts about 90 minutes, and comprises factual snippets, nuggets of information, some bee-keeping basics, all with beautiful cinematography including some amazing macro work.
The film begins in a stunning Alpine setting, with Fred who is out gathering a swarm, no hint of protective clothing. He is descended from a long line of bee keepers and can recall how things used to be. For him traditional methods are all important. Fred is fighting cross-breeding, striving to keep the local race of black bees pure. He discovers one of his queen bees has been interbreeding with a yellow bee from a neighbouring valley, and without compunction, squeezes off the head of this traitress.
The story moves to a vast almond producing area in California, and the associated honey producing / pollination operation. The scale is immense – and the driving force is money making. The orchards were alive with bees collecting pollen – but after just a short while the hives have to be transported on – as, once the pollen has been collected there is no more nourishment for the bees and for them it is has become a desert. The trees are fumigated during the day – and traces of fungide can be found in the resultant honey. Additionally the bees are fed antibiotics, to help assure the continued presence of this all important component of such industrialised agriculture.
We meet Heidrun Singer and her production line of Queen Bees – she gently transposes larvae into false royal cells, thereby tricking the bees into feeding them royal jelly. Apparently her queen bees are sold around the world – and we see them packaged up and hauled off by a courrier company.
Onto China, to an area where bees are so scare that pollination is done by hand – by human beings (mostly women). Pollen is collected and sold in small packets, and then a team of workers, armed with cotton buds, the pollen in a bottle round their necks, pollinate the trees, flower by flower.
Back to the US, to Arizona, where Fred (another Fred) works collecting Africanized Killer Bees. Having retrieved a swarm, he doesn’t destroy it, but rather keeps it – noticing that they are more hardy than their normal counterparts, produce good honey, but have to be treated with a good deal of respect.
There are further tales of Foul Brood, pesticides and the varroa mite. Evidence of stress sufferered when transporting the hives on the back of lorries for thousands of kilometers each year. Footage of bees fitted with tracking devices. We meet a German neuroscientist investigating bee brains. And much more.
This is not a film with a beginning, a middle and an end – it is educational, a neutral presentation of facts and information, from which we are allowed to draw our own conclusions. We see that traditional and natural methods, and unlimited growth may be unsustainable. Does the answer lie in a totally unexpected source?
The film is originally in German, and is available with French subtitles (there is a certain amount of spoken English).
What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, I was out planting primulas, admiring the cheery daffodils and noticing the first cuckoo. The bees were working at full speed, in and out all day long, their baskets full of pollen. There were even a couple of butterflies, and the fruit trees were all either in full blossom or about to burst forth.
And this morning, I wake up to a blanket of snow, up to 6 inches deep. Its all quite photogenic, and isnt too cold, so I am guessing that it will all have melted away by tomorrow. I wonder what impact it will have on the fruit blossom?
Whilst trying to photograph a bumble bee, bumbling around in the now rather lush ground cover, my attention was drawn to this big black bug, behaving in much the same fashion as the bumble bee.
It had a loud buzz and was busy foraging within the flowers. But the body is glossy, heavy and black which made me think ‘beetle’. The wings are fabulous – a gorgeous irridescent blue.
Anyway, a quick google has provided the answer – it seems that I have met my first Carpenter Bee. Apparently fairly common in France, they make their home in old rotting trees, live a somewhat solitary existence, and are not aggressive and rarely sting.
In France, they are called the blue bee or abeille charpentiere and its Latin name is Xylocopa violacea.
Spring is in the air… finally. I have been itching to get and about with the camera for several days now, ever since the Japonicas burst into bloom with their beautiful, vibrant orange-pink flowers. I also noted that the almond tree wasn’t too far behind, with buds aplenty.
It has been warming up nicely, and apparently the bees won’t come out to actively forage until the temperature hits 13 degrees. And full foraging is not acheived until it warms up beyond 19 degrees. It was pleasantly mild at the beginning of the week, but then we were hit by a Vent d’Autan – a quite violent wind coming at us from the east, and this time gusting up to 60 kms/ hour. It lasted for 48 hours, and at times it felt like the roof of the house was coming off (luckily, it didn’t). I certainly didn’t feel like venturing forth, and I imagine the bees stayed indoors too.
Conditions yesterday were much improved, so off I trot with trusty camera to see what’s going down in honey bee world. And lo, there were the girls hard at work, collecting pollen from the stunning Japanese Quince (Chaenomeles japonica) bushes. All very photogenic – that’s the calendar image for March 2014 in the bag.
Just next to the Japonicas is a splendid almond tree, starting to blossom. I love this flower, with its tinges of pink and incredible perfume. The bees were here too, gathering up the yellow-brown pollen. This pollination work is important in the big almond producing regions of the world – the pollination of California’s almonds is the largest annual managed pollination event in the world, with close to one million hives (nearly half of all beehives in the USA) being trucked in February to the almond groves.
We have a whopping two trees, so hopefully the girls won’t bee too overwhelmed with the workload.