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.

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.

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 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!

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)

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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