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.

Bfly_cabbage_white_under_alfalfa_1

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…

bee_alfalfa_10

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.

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Flat Stanley notches up more air miles

Howdy! My name is Flat Stanley, and I come from Austin, Texas – where I live with Karl, having being created by Riya as part of the Flat Stanley Literacy Project.

Flat Stanley has a penchant for fine French champagne.

Flat Stanley has a penchant for fine French champagne.

My dream is to travel the globe and learn about beekeeping in different countries. When I heard I was to visit Dallas, I thought fine, not terribly far (about 200 miles from Austin) and certainly not as historical as London, England or seasidey as the Isle of Wight (England’s smallest county at high tide). However, it turns out that this Dallas is a Person, and I arrived after a stress-free journey in a small farming village in south-west France.

Being something of a connoisseur of fine wines, this is rather a coup (notice how I am already picking up some French vocabulary).

After a short siesta, we went off to have a look at the bees’ foraging grounds, which at this time of year means sunflowers, sunflowers and sunflowers.

flat_stanley_sunflowers_2

This means that the  honey from Dallas’ bees will be a monofloral honey. Last year it was a fabulous rich sunny yellow, and looks like it is packed with solar energy. It crystallises rapidly, has a creamy consistency and is rich in calcium, boron and silicon. In France, sunflower honey (or miel de tournesol as I now call it) is top of the leaderboard in terms of production.

Sunflowers are originally from North America (just like me), and were cultivated by the native Americans. They were brought to Europe in the sixteenth century by the Spanish, and cultivated for the oil from the seeds.

We also visited an alfalfa field – which last week, apparently, was buzzing with bees, but was now eerily quiet. Alfalfa honey is big in the United States and Canada, but Dallas says she hasn’t noticed it much in evidence in France. Yet.

flat_stanley_alfalfa

Its not quite as hot here as it is in Texas. Today its been a pleasant 28 degrees (or 82° Fahrenheit) – but it can sure get darned hot inside that beekeepers outfit – so time for a bit of R&R…

flat_stanley_pool_1

The honey extraction is scheduled for September 7th. Karl, can I stay here please to help with that?

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.

bee_alfalfa_6

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.

butterfly_alfalfa_1

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.

alfalfa_2

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.

hivea_super_honey

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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Sunflowers bursting forth

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sunflowers surrounding a pigonnier in south-west France

The sunflowers in the fields around and about are all poised to transform from green buds into bright yellow flowers (with their velvety brown faces). Exciting times, on one hand simply because I find the sunflowers so visually appealling, and secondly because I know that they will be providing stores for the honey bees – hopefully in excessive amounts.

sunflowers_early_6

I noticed yesterday, in a field at the bottom of our hill, that someone had been along and deposited, temporarily, a batch of mobile hives. They are far enough away from my bees to represent any potential competition.

sunflowers_beehives

I took a drive yesterday to get an idea of the most convenient sunflowers for my bees, and to evaluate whats going to be available and when. Last year, the house was surrounded on three sides by sunflower fields – this year they have been planted with wheat and barley. There are however several large fields all within a 2 kilometer radius of the hives, and more beyond that.

The early sunflowers are already attracting their fair share of bees.

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honey bees start arriving on sunflower feeding station

The sunflower buds have something of a triffid like appearance.

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With the petals packed in tight, desperate to unfurl into the sunlight.

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Looks like my girls are going to bee very busy over the coming weeks.

Bee Forage : April

honey bee on Brassica napus

honey bee amongst the oilseed rape

The big bee-forage news this month must be the oilseed rape (Brassica napus). Fruit trees continue to blossom in the orchard, notably the pear, cherry and quince – but the overriding draw surely comes from the distinctive bright yellow swathes, pushing up all over the countryside.

The pollen is quite evidently plentiful, and the bees are returning to the hive with baskets full to busting.

is pollen good for the complexion?

is pollen good for the complexion?

Given that this is our first April with the hive, we are mindful of the precise timing required for a rapeseed honey harvest – as this particular honey has a tendency to crystallise rapidly. We are keeping a close eye on stores within the hive, and added a super 7 days ago. We could be in for a good harvest of honey – but must ensure that it is extracted from the comb before having the chance to set rock hard.

honey bee in amongst the oilseed rape

perhaps its time to start thinking about returning your load to the hive?

Maybe the OSR honey will be tempered with nectar from the orchard blossoms, which are also quite plentiful – we shall have to wait and see!

honey bee on pear blossom - doyenne du comice to be exact

honey bee on pear blossom – doyenne du comice to be exact

honey bees on apple blossom - this one is a Bramley apple

honey bees on apple blossom – this one is a Bramley apple

Bee Forage : March

Honey bee collecting box pollen (Buxus sempervirens)

Honey bee collecting box pollen (Buxus sempervirens)

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")

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)

Honey Bee on ornamental plum (Prunus cerasifera)

fruit of the wild plum

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.

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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.

Buxus flower : ripening female flowers

Buxus flower : ripening female flowers (the yellow-green 3 pointed structures)

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

Bee Forage : June

Would madam prefer nectar – the sweet, sugary fluid provided by the bramble flower? Also, the drink of the gods.

What’s on the menu this month? Forage is the term that we beekeepers use for the food sources available to bees. The reference books talk about the June Gap – a time when one mass food source has finished and another not yet begun. Its true that the oilseed rape has long since lost its bright yellow plumage and the sunflowers are nowhere near flowering. I am keen to find out what the bees are feasting on – not least so that we can perhaps plant more of their favourites for next year.

So far, I have seen plenty of activity around the lavender, honeysuckle and blackberry flowers. And then my attention was drawn to the asparagus bed. We stopped harvesting the asparagus about 4 weeks ago and it is now a mass of ferny foliage. And heavy buzzing. Its full of bees, all sporting bright orange pollen sacs on their back legs. The bees over at the bramble patch don’t have this. Time to delve into the reference books – here’s some pertinent foraging facts…

  • honey bees collect both nectar and pollen from flowers
  • only the nectar is used to make honey
  • they only collect one or the other on a trip
  • the nectar is transported in the stomach
  • this stomach is separate from the digestive stomach, although the bee can open a valve between the two if she is hungry
  • nectar is mostly water with dissolved sugar – the sugar content being between 25% and 50%
  • honey bees will collect nectar as far as 14 kms away from their hive
  • after visiting between 150 and 1500 flowers, the nectar stomach is full and almost equal to her starting weight

    Or perhaps, madam is partial to the nitrogen rich, protein packed pollen as found in these asparagus flowers?

    Phwoar

    birds do it, bees do it…
    ~ Spotted Asparagus Beetles ~

Scramble in the Bramble

Not too far from the hive, I discovered a patch of bramble which is ALIVE with bees, bugs and butterflies. The bramble flowers are just opening, and there’s a sort of creeper there too, just blooming. The best time to go is mid morning – I think there’s plenty to go round, but I did witness a couple of altercations.

~ a Marbled White Butterfly takes on a bee ~
the butterfly won

~ Large Skipper butterfly ~
has a large furry body and striped antennae

another butterfly v bee altercation
the butterfly is a Cabbage White

~ Small Copper butterfly (Lycaena phlaes) ~
sitting on Travellers Joy flower (Clematis vitalba)