Flat Stanley and the Honey Harvest

Howdy – its Flat Stanley again, reporting in after an exciting day’s honey extraction! We collected the honey from the hives of Dallas and Jean-Philippe – three hives in all. I was asked to help out in the Extracting Room.

Flat Stanley and a frame dripping with honey

Flat Stanley and a frame dripping with honey

Firstly we had to make sure that all the equipment was spotlessly clean. It is after all a year since it has been used. You see me here atop the centrifugal extractor, surrounded by uncapping trays, buckets, sieves and honey tanks.

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All was fine and dandy, so we installed all these bits and pieces in the so called Extracting Room. When Dallas’ house was used as a farm in the olden days, this room was part of the area where they kept cows and horses. There is a massive vat in the corner which some say was for water for the animals, others say it was for wine making – now its used for showering off the dogs. Folks also say that this room is haunted!

The honey extraction was a big success, especially for Jean-Philippe, who had over 30 kilos of beautiful honey. I watched as the honey cells were uncapped and then spun to extract the golden juice.

One thing we did notice on one of Dallas’ frames was a patch of paler, crystallised honey, which must have originated from the oil seed rape.

pale colza honey on the left

pale colza honey on the left

This OSR or colza honey was set too hard to extract – all we could do was leave it and the bees would recuperate it when we leave the frames out for them to clean up.

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Liquid Gold

After we had finished the extraction and tidied up, washed all the equipment and tried to make the floor less sticky, we all sat down with some ice-cold beer and a platter of fresh bread and mild goats cheese, drizzled of course with super fresh honey – it was scrumptious.

Karl, I am developing quite a liking for these French cheeses. In fact, France produces alot of wonderful food stuffs – perhaps its time I was thinking about coming home, whilst I am still nice and flat?

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Honey Harvest Part One : extracting the frames from the bees

Its Honey Harvest Day!  The weather is okay – not as hot as last year, but warm enough, and critically no rain or wind. We are a team of four (five if you count Flat Stanley), myself, Jean-Phi, his sister Beatrice and her friend Patrice. The question on everybodys’ lips is ‘Will there be much honey?’

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After a thorough equipment / clothing check and a run though of responsibilities, we head for Jean-Phi’s hives. He is on Frame Extraction duty, I have control of the Smoker (as well as being Helper of the Tools), Patrice stands guard over the extracted frames and ensures that they are hidden away from the bees, Beatrice is Chief Photographer.

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‘Nurse, the brush’

The honey quantity question is soon answered at the first hive – the frames are gloriously, abundantly full to busting. The first hive yielded 9 frames packed to capacity.

heavy with honey

heavy with honey

And the second hive was equally productive. The bees were calm, and certainly didn’t seem to object to us pilfering the fruits of their labour.

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spillage

So with all the frames from two super Supers purloined, all the kit was loaded into the cars and its off to my house to see if my bees have fulfilled their brief just as impressively.

Rather annoyingly, Jean-Phi’s girls outperformed mine – but there was still honey to be had. This year the sunflowers were quite a bit further away than last year. And was there indeed competition from the mobile hives?

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So, all the frames gathered in – its off to the Extracting Room…

Extended Bee Team and the Precious Cargo

Extended Bee Team and the Precious Cargo

Honey Harvest Part Two coming very soon!

And Flat Stanley tells his side of the story.

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)

thistle_down

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.

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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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

 

Albee Rugby

Being keen on live sporting events, we happily accepted an invitation to join friends to watch a rugby match at their local stadium. It was being played by the mighty Castres Olympique, who are League Champions of France no-less (champions of Top 14), against SCA Albi, a team from the second division, playing in a pre-season friendly – a local derby hosted by Lavaur, an amateur rugby side.

In this instance, we went along as neutrals, just there for the craic and to enjoy the atmosphere in the warm, nay baking hot, evening sunshine. Neutral that is until Andy pointed out their team mascot…

Blachu

Blachu – the SCA mascot

Albi rugby team play in a very fetching strip of yellow and black, and their fans are known collectively as KOP de la Ruche (the hive).

supporter of Albi rugby

supporter of Albi rugby

Usually, when spectating at a sports event, we have a clear favourite team or individual, and we passionately cheer along our preferred choice, be it the Ashes, the FA Cup, the Ryder Cup, Wimbledon, the Six Nations and so on. However, in club rugby union we are decidely fickle, and our loyaties are easily swayed, and have variously supported Munster (lent a shirt), Edinburgh (given a shirt), Harlequins (smashing post match party), Toulon (Jonny Wilkinson) and now, for one evening, we had become ardent Albi supporters.

It all started well, and Albi were actually winning at half time. CO however dominated the second half and the match finished 26-19 in Castres’ favour.

There was a superb festival atmosphere at the ground after the match – and we were invited to continue the party by our Castres supporting friends – perhaps now was a good time to change allegiance?

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.

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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.

Airbus A350 – the latest first flight in Toulouse

Airbus A350 - first flight

Airbus A350 – first flight

There was a big buzz of excitement all around the perimeter of Toulouse Blagnac airport this morning, as crowds gathered to witness the maiden test flight of a brand new aircraft – the A350.

Weather conditions were perfect, big blue sky with a few fluffy white clouds, and barely a breath of wind. We found a good vantage point on a small hillock, surrounded by wildflowers, right at the end of the runway. My camera lens was distracted downwards, as there was quite alot of bee activity in amongst the poppies…

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But, stop it, we were here to witness the aeronautical abilities of an altogether different extra-wide bodied phenomenon.

The tension was palpable – many folk in the crowd were directly involved in some way with the design and creation of the new airliner. Just before 10 o’clock, a small corvette aeroplane took off in advance of the A350 – full of video equipment, with experts to observe the exterior of the A350 during its test flight.

And then, right on time, no fuss, the A350 started off down the runway and was soon airborne.

Airbus A350 takes to the skies

Airbus A350 takes to the skies

The plane is expected to fly for four hours, over France and the Atlantic, before returning early this afternoon – and then ready itself for the airshow in Paris next week.

bon voyage

bon voyage