Down at the Thistles

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Back down to Blog’s Gallop, this time to check out the thistles, on the opposite side of the track to the wild mint. These thistles are of various shapes and sizes – tall and thin, big and fat – I’m going to leave detailed thistle identification for another day – just concentrate on the myriad of bugs feasting upon the nectar.

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we start of course with the good old honey bee

Interesting Fact : the French for thistle is chardon, and is believed to be the origin for the name of the village in Burgundy – Chardonnay, which in turn gives its name to the grape variety.

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White Tailed Bumblebee on Thistle Flower
(Bombus lucorum)

Belted Hoverfly (volucella zonaria)

Belted Hoverfly
(Volucella zonaria)

Also known as the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly, it has no sting and the larvae live inside wasps’ nests.

Halictus scabiosae : male

Comma Butterfly (Polygonia c-album)

Comma Butterfly
(Polygonia c-album)

When I first downloaded this image, I thought here we go again, trawling through the reference material looking at countless orange/brown butterflies. But no. That tiny little white inverted ‘C’ or ‘comma’ neatly distinguishes it – not to mention the jagged outline and the withered leaf-like underside.

Blowfly sharing with a honey bee

Blowfly sharing with a honey bee

I was thrilled to see this chap below, but I’m not thrilled with the quality of the image, the light was going. Its the first time I’ve seen one of these bumblebees, with his very distinctive orange-red bottom.

Red Tailed Bumblebee : male(Bombus lapidarus)

Red Tailed Bumblebee : male
(Bombus lapidarus)

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Working on my inner lepidopterist

Having happened upon a small alfalfa field, just 2 kilometres from the house, I made a couple of return visits, to have a better look at the bee activity and see if I could find my inner lepidopterist.

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Large White or Cabbage White
(Pieris brassicae)

On both occasions, there was plenty going on, but it was breezy, making photography tricky.

I thought about estimating the relative presence of various creatures – without recoursing to a butterfly net, walking of transects, traps or even a clip board. Let’s call it semi-empirical, quasi-quantitative Observation.

Clouded Yellow Butterfly (Colias croceus)

Clouded Yellow Butterfly
(Colias croceus)

Here are the results of my in-depth study :

Creature

Quantity

Honey Bee Countless
Bumble Bee One
Ladybird One
Cricket Many, at the edges of the field
Cabbage White Butterfly Plentiful
Clouded Yellow Butterfly A handful
Peacock Butterfly One
Common Blue Butterfly Quite alot
Queen of Spain Fritillary One
Heath (?) Fritillary Two – with more on their way

and some pictorial proof…

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Honey Bee
(Apis mellifera)

White Tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lucorum)

White Tailed Bumblebee
(Bombus lucorum)

I have invested in a reference book – Papillons (Larousse), as it has become apparent that my little guide is inadequate and too UK focussed. The new book is by no means exhaustive, but it is certainly handy to have something more oriented towards the butterflies of France.

It has only recently dawned on me how different the butterfly populations can be from one region to another.

Common Blue Butterfy (female)
(Polyommatis icarus)

I agree, she isn’t particularly blue – but the male below does have a violet nuance.

Common Blue Butterfy (male) (Polyommatus icarus)

Common Blue Butterfy (male)
(Polyommatus icarus)

Bfly_alfalfa_7_mating

Get a Room!
pair of Fritillaries – could be Heath, Meadow or Provencal?

Another lesson learned is that it really helps to have a view of both the upper and the underside of these butterflies.

And that even with a book, and the internet, identification is something of a challenge. Its not all black and white.

Another Purple Patch : wild mint

One of the dogs’ favourite walks is direct from the house, round the woods, coming back along a rarely used farm track, which we refer to as Blog’s Gallop. It’s serious rabbit country.

Blog's Gallop oak woodland on left, stream (hidden) on right

Blog’s Gallop
oak woodland on left, stream (hidden) on right

There’s a goodly selection of wildflowers down there at the moment, of various colours, but predominantely different shades of purple – particularly a band of wild mint running alongside the stream, which is proving popular with our wee flying friends.

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Queen of Spain Fritillary (Issoria lathonia)
on wild mint flower (Mentha arvensis)

This Fritillary is considered as a rare migrant species in Britain – but is more widespread in Europe. It is similar to the High Brown Fritillary (the UK’s most endangered butterfly), and is distinguishable from it by having larger white / silvery blobs on the underside of its hind wings.

The ‘Queen of Spain’ name was given to the butterfly in 1775 by Moses Harris in The Aurelian’s Pocket Companion, but there is no explanation as to why he did so.

With the naked eye, I thought I might have happened upon a new creature – an intensely yellow honey bee (Apis aurum?). Upon closer inspection however, it seems that this little lady has been frollicking in the sunflowers and was covered in golden pollen beads from head to tail…

we know where you've been!

we know where you’ve been!
attention – incoming hoverfly

She’s collected more pollen about her person than in the baskets. I wouldn’t be surprised if Little Miss Messy here is one of mine.

And this is how its supposed to be done…

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As usual, there were plenty of butterflies, and quite a variety – ones I hadn’t come across before. There’s a danger that this is turning into a butterfly blog, which was never my intention, but I do feel that they are worthy of a mention.

Southern White Admiral Butterfly (Limenitis reducta)

Southern White Admiral (Limenitis reducta)

Skipper Butterfly my, what big eyes you've got

Skipper Butterfly
my, what big eyes you’ve got

underside of Peacock Butterfly (inachis io) on wild mint

underside of Peacock Butterfly (Inachis io) on wild mint

Large Tortoishell Butterfly (Nymphalis polychloros)

Large Tortoishell Butterfly
(Nymphalis polychloros)

Large White or Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris brassicae)

Large White or Cabbage White Butterfly
(Pieris brassicae)

And now for something completely different. Here is Blog enjoying a gallop at one of his other favourite walks…

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Blog the Dog at the lake

Many thanks to Amelia (afrenchgarden) for her input in correctly identifying the butterflies.

Alfalfa Sprouting Up

Apart from ducks and geese, the farming in this particular bit of south-west France is predominantly arable. The cereal crops, mainly wheat and barley, were all harvested by the end of July. The sunflowers are now thriving and the maize is coming on strong. There are one or two fields of soya beans here and there, and usually thats about it.

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field of alfalfa or lucerne

However, yesterday, I noticed this beautiful field of purple and lilac flowers, and thought, bingo! Surely this is going to be butterfly-and-bee-tastic. And I was right.

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honey bee (Apis melifera) on alfalfa flower (Medicago sativa)

It turns out to be alfalfa, also known as lucerne, and is grown as a livestock fodder, predominantly for dairy cows. It is a member of the pea family, is a perennial and is the most cultivated forage legume in the world.

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and another one

If you talk to a french person about cricket, this is probably what they are imagining…

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cricket on alfalfa flower

There were loads of butterflies, but as usual they were too busy fluttering and flittering for me to get a decent shot.

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Another thing I couldn’t capture is the scent of the flowers, not to mention the humming and buzzing from the insects.

I’m going back tomorrow to see what else is in there – didn’t really have long enough yesterday.

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alfalfa field under a beautiful August sky

 

Latest Sunflower / Bee News

WARNING : this post contains yet more pictures of bees on sunflowers.

However, in an effort to mix it up a bit, I have tried playing around with some of the sunflower pictures, trying out various photoshop effects. Here is one of the sunflower field in front of our village church…

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LittleWorld image : Sunflowers in Garac

With the sunflowers in full throttle, Hive B has been extended by adding a super.

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Andy just about to add a super to Hive B

We aren’t terribly optimistic that those additional frames will be full to busting come the end of the sunflower season. The bees haven’t been in residence that long, and with the rotten weather in May and June, they are still establishing themselves in the brood box.

We do however have higher expectations for Hive A.

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Honey building up in Hive A

I am now noticing alot of mobile hives in the fields around and about, and cannot decide if this is a new phenomenon or whether its now something that I can easily spot. Just wondering about the levels of competition for the pollen / nectar.

And finally, the obligatory bees-on-sunflowers shots…

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Not everything in the garden is rosy

Hurrah, at last, a bit of seasonal warmth. It has been so wet and so fresh for weeks now that I was beginning to wonder if the bees could hang on much longer. Today, finally, it’s sunny and warm and the bees are out in force.

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roses are red

The roses are all doing well, but this ancient variety is definititely their favourite – the bees are numerous and the activity is somewhat phrenetic.

Over in the herb garden, the chive flowers are attracting much attention – from butterflies, bumblebees and honey bees alike.

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chive flowers are blue

However, hiding in amongst the charming chive flowers, dark forces are at work – and this poor honey bee has become a victim.

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Crab Spider (Xysticus) enjoying a spot of honey bee for lunch

Another unwelcome visitor in the garden is the Asian Hornet (Vespa velutina) – also a predator of bees. The following image is actually a European Hornet (Vespo crabro) which has been adeptly neutralised by a swift knock from Andy’s mobile phone, its thorax becoming squished in the process. This hornet is not reviled as much as its Asian counterpart, but is nonetheless not something I am fond of finding near the house.

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European Hornet (Vespa crabro)

I put out some bottle traps for the Asian Hornet monsters a few weeks ago, especially near the hives. These are simple devices constructed from 2 empty water bottles and filled to a depth of about 10 centimetres with a mixture made up of brown beer, white wine and a syrupy cordial such as grenadine. These traps do attract other flying creatures (crucially not bees or butterflies), and the liquid bait will contain flies and moths, but essentially they are targeted at attracting hornets. Here is the haul from one bottle after just a few days…

an assortment of hornets from a bottle trap

an assortment of hornets from a bottle trap

The metal grill is back on th hive – this narrows the entrance to the hive, so that, in theory, only the honey bees can gain access. And I’ll be keeping an eye out for a nest – these tend to be spherical, often high up in trees, but also in other sheltered spots. Here is an example of what I’m on the lookout for …

Asian Hornet nest

To end on a happy note, we go back to the chive flowers and a contented bumblebee.

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Early Bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) investigating chive flower

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

Bee Friendly Shrub : Bush Germander

I was given a small, mystery plant in Autumn 2010, and popped it in the ground at the top a bank, not knowing what to expect. Luckily this well-drained sunny position suited it down to a ‘t’ and it has since flourished, proliferating vigorously, and above all it turns out to be quite the bee magnet – attracting the attention of the honey bees and bumblebees.

bee on tree germander (Teucrium fruticans)

common carder bee (Bombus pascuorum) on bush germander (Teucrium fruticans)

It is a mediterranean native with downy grey-green, aromatic foliage. The flower is interesting and intricate – icy blue petals with deep purple veins, sporting great-reaching, show-off stamen, designed perfectly to rub themselves sneakily on the bee’s back as they get on with the business of sucking up nectar.

beehind you!

beehind you!

Teucrium was named for Teucer, the legendary first king of Troy who pioneered use of these plants as medicinals. He was a great archer and fought alongside his half-brother Ajax in the Trojan War. Fruticans, more banally, means shrubby.

got you!

got you!

South Bank Show

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.

Honey Bee visiting Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

Honey Bee visiting Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)

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)

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).

Honey bee on Common Field-speedwell (Veronica persica).

my new friend, the Carpenter Bee

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…

Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum)

Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum)

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Wakey, wakey, rise and pollinate

blooming lovely

blooming lovely

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.

Almond : a symbol of delicacy

Almond : a symbol of delicacy