Wildflowers : Of verges and vergers

Californian poppy ~ Eschscholzia californica

Californian poppy ~ Eschscholzia californica

One of the positive aspects of all the recent rain is the proliferation of wildflowers, now coating the banks at the side of the road, nestling in amongst the hedgerows and cornfields, and blanketing areas of uncultivated land. They are also appearing in and around the garden, vegetable plot and orchard (perhaps I should note that the french for ‘orchard’ is ‘verger’ – hence the title of the post).

The poppies win my Wildflower of the Week award,  photogenically colouring the roadside with their cheerful, deep red tones.

poppies swaying in the breeze

poppies swaying in the breeze

Last year, we decided to have a go at planting our own wildflower meadow, and cleared an area around an ancient pear tree. We chose a mix of flowers that would attract insects deemed beneficial to the vegetable garden, together, of course, with bee-friendly wildflower seeds. Nettles and other unappealing weeds were removed, the earth laid bare and the seeds duly scattered. And we waited. And nothing. And then the nettles and other horrid weeds came back.

But then this year, as if by magic, a colourful carpet of mixed wildflowers has sprouted up. They are a bit localised and bunched together – but quite magnificent. The marigolds are particularly vigorous – these came from seeds left over from companion planting for the tomatoes (they repel nematodes and slugs).

Pear Tree Meadow

Pear Tree Meadow

In a different style, but nonetheless wild, I was thrilled to find this orchid, sitting majestically alone in the middle of a patch of grass (too unkempt to call ‘lawn’), lucky to have escaped the blades of the tractor. It belongs to the Tongue Orchid family.

Tongue Orchid ~ Serapias lingua

Tongue Orchid ~ Serapias lingua

Credit to Amelia (https://afrenchgarden.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/of-the-well-trodden-paths/) for alerting me to these wild orchids – didn’t think I would spot one so soon after reading about them, let alone in my very own garden.

Flitting about in the garden are quite a few of these butterflies – the Heath Fritillary. In the UK, they are considered to be threatened, but not so in France – where their preferred habitat is given as pasture or unimproved hay-meadow (an apt description of the lower part of our ‘garden’).

Heath Fritillary ~ Melitaea athalia

Heath Fritillary ~ Melitaea athalia

a rather tatty Peacock Butterfly (Inachis io) feasting on chive flower

a rather tatty Peacock Butterfly (Inachis io) feasting on chive flower

And finally, here’s a shot of something not terribly wild, my faithful hound, posing in amongst the poppies.

Blog the Dog

Blog the Dog

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What’s the collective noun for ‘swarms’?

It’s happened again! Now we have a third swarm. Just seven days after Jean-Philippe called to ask us to help with a swarm near his hive, he was ringing us again (on the Emergency Beeline). Another swarm cluster was developing in roughly the same place, already larger than the first.

a second swarm cluster for JP

a second swarm cluster for JP

So, with the swiftness of a well rehearsed fire-crew, we bundled the necessary equipment into the Beemobile (a battered Renault Kangoo) and headed off to JP’s house, jesting that a yellow and black flashing light, complete with loud buzzing noise, would be appropriate.

This swarm was slightly more awkward than the previous two, in that it was higher up and the branch it was attached to was too thick to cut with secateurs – so we had to employ the old Shake and Brush into a Hive Lid Technique.

capturing the latest swarm cluster

capturing (and wearing) the latest swarm cluster

This swarm was also a bit more feisty than the others – however they settled quickly into the ruchette (nucleus), and immediately took up the offer of sugar solution. You may notice that we have discovered a new shade of hive paint – a rather attractive lavender colour.

So, this year, we have gone from one hive each, to two for us and now four for Jean Philippe.

Breakfast in Bed

After the recent Queen Drama, it is paramount that the bees feel at home in their new ruchette and stay put. So the following day, I was up with the larks to serve them breakfast – a syrup solution, made with 1 kilo sugar to 1 litre water, and a teaspoon of vinegar – to be served in a feeder which sits over a hole in the cover of the ruchette (which I now understand is called a ‘nucleus’ or ‘nuc’ in English – thanks to Emily : http://adventuresinbeeland.com/).

plastic feeder, filled with sugar solution which the bees can access from within the hive

plastic feeder, filled with sugar solution which the bees can access from within the hive

I’m keeping a close eye on the level of this syrup – but am noticing, now that the weather has picked up that there is plenty of coming and going from the ruchette – I will give them a couple more days and then have a closer inspection.

from outside, at least, all seems well

from outside, at least, all seems well

Now that things have calmed down, its time to reflect on why the bees swarmed, was it preventable, should I have picked up on clues beforehand that this was likely to happen?

The Venerable Beede (VB) assures us that it is quite normal, and may be linked to the weather, in that there have been some hot, sunny, good-foraging days, but lately lots of fresh and unseasonably wet days. Is the pollen being washed away?

raindrop with apple blossom

raindrop with apple blossom

Deja Vue

Jean-Philippe, having just returned from his travels, called us yesterday to report that his bees too had decided to split, and a swarm cluster was building in exactly the same manner as mine. Being experienced in such matters, we dashed down to offer any assistance necessary.

Andy confidently snips through the branch holding the swarm

Andy confidently snips through the branch holding the swarm

the bees drop into the ruchette - in this case, the frames already have some honeycomb to tempt them in

the bees drop into the ruchette – in this case, the frames already have some honeycomb to tempt them in

the queen is in residence

bee fanning her Nasonov gland
~ the queen is in residence ~

In the above image, we see a bee sticking its abdomen up in the air, almost vertically, to release the Nasonov pheromone. This pheromone is used by scout bees to mark their chosen new home after swarming and assists the swarm in arriving gracefully at their new location. Not particularly ladylike, but good to see.

Queen Bee-atrix Abdicates

On the very same day that her namesake in the Netherlands was relinquishing the throne, our Queen Bee-atrix has decided to abandon her principal residence in favour of one of her offspring, and has moved on, along with a considerable number of attendants.

strange formation near the bees

strange formation near the bees

It was all a bit of an unexpected drama.  I had beetled over to the hens to collect the day’s egg production (three eggs), when I noticed an odd shape on a tree branch adjacent to the hive. Upon closer inspection it was a seething, buzzing mass of bees – a Swarm!

don't panic!

don’t panic!

Still being a novice bee-keeper, I had little idea of how to interpret this development – so headed back to the house and the reference books. Andy had just arrived home from work in Colomiers, and we decided that the best course of action was to call our Venerable Beede (VB). He told us that we had to react immediately, otherwise the swarm could be off to pastures new in a matter of hours. So, off sets Andy back to Colomiers to pick up VB and returns an hour later, along with him plus a small nursery hive – I’m not sure what the correct term for this is in English, but in French its ‘ruchette’ , a word I like (and will therefore continue to use).

I had already got the smoker lit – I have recently hit upon the idea of using a blow torch to get it going, much less time-consuming. VB slipped on his wellies, whilst Andy and I covered up from head to toe in full bee-keeping regalia.

preparing the ruchette beneath the swarm

preparing the ruchette beneath the swarm

VB is not too impressed with the volume of this swarm, already having tended to some recently at least 10 times larger – in fact he wonders if its not a secondary swarm. There is much to ponder on the whys and the wherefores of this particular bee behaviour – but for the moment we must concentrate on keeping these bees chez nous.

cool as a cucumber

cool as a cucumber

The swarm cluster is actually calm – the bees dont have any brood or honey to defend. So a quick snip with the secateurs, and the cluster is laid on the waiting frames of the ruchette.

bee swarm gently laid on top of frames

bee swarm gently laid on top of frames

the smoker is used to encourage the bees to enter into the hive

the smoker is used to encourage the bees to enter into the hive

lets hope they like their new home

lets hope they like their new home

We shall keep these bees in the ruchette for 3 or 4 weeks, providing nourishment. And in the meantime have to get a second hive prepared, the same as the first one. This will be placed in exactly the same location as the ruchette – and when we feel that the bees and the frames are settled they will be transferred to their new permanent (hopefully) residence.

We shall also be investing in one or two ruchettes – so that, should there be another episode like this, we can handle it ourselves, having been shown the way by the Master!

you can't escape from us that easily

you can’t escape from us that easily

Once the bees had dropped into the box, a cover was added and then the lid – VB ensuring that every last, single bee had found its way into the ruchette – there were still some bees arriving late wondering what had happened to the swarm.

The ruchette was carefully placed on a new palette – I still had work to do making a syrup solution, and Andy was off for the third time that day on a Colomiers round-trip to take VB back home (after we had toasted the evening’s work with a small glass of vin cuit).

(to bee continued)