Friday, April 29, 2011

Busy, busy bees.

Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years life left.  No more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”  In their fascinatingly worrying book, A World Without Bees, Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum reckon that, “In truth, it is more likely to have been French beekeepers who put these words posthumously into Einstein’s mouth a few years ago during a battle to get a pesticide banned from their country.”  Whoever said it, what is it all about?

Bees are in crisis!

A bee being busy chez nous
It seems then, it is a responsibility to raise bees but it’s also been a longstanding dream of Gabrielle’s to add these tiny beasts to our livestock.  With so much going on, and ducks also on the list of this year’s ambitions, I thought a breeding pair would be enough but talk was of a swarm, thousands of the buzzy buggers.  Registered for our sheep and pigs, we would also have to inform officialdom of our beekeeping and get yet another holding number.  Fine, as long as I don’t have to ear-tag all our bees!

The new phenomenon, Colony Collapse Disorder, is, as yet, un-hundred-percently-explained, although we do know that bees are stressed from many directions, such as pesticides, viruses, Varroa mites, aggressive Africanised bees, fungi or just trucking them thousands of miles to pollinate successions of monocrops.

I quote directly from Benjamin’s and McCallum’s book :
“The mountains of southern Sichuan in China are covered in pear trees.  Every April, they are home to a rare sight: thousands of people holding bamboo sticks with chicken feathers attached to the end, clambering among the blossom-laden branches.  Closer inspection reveals that children, parents and even grandparents are all pollinating the trees by hand.  It is a ritual they have been following for more than 20 years, ever since pesticides killed all their honeybees.”
Jean shows Gabrielle where to site the hive

Take a moment to consider their reality and wonder how that would work out here.  Can you imagine the local job centre filling their vacancies for ‘fruit tree pollinating’ for the minimum wage?

Having read loads, Gabrielle is interested with the Abbé Warré method of raising bees but we have decided that the best way to start is with a mentor, step forward local apiculteur Jean Meilleur, and thus the simplest approach seems to be to go with what he’s used to, i.e., a standard French Dadant hive.  Once we know what we’re about, bee-wise, and when we have a need for a second hive, we might then build a Warré hive.

Ready for the bees to move in
The kindly Monsieur Meilleur met us at the supplier of beekeeping equipment to help us choose the right things, even negotiating a little discount for us.  He then followed us home to help us find the right location for the hive, where our bees wouldn’t bother our neighbours.  I’ve painted the exterior of the hive in white , mounted it on a couple of concrete blocks and smeared some “charme abeille (bee perfume) inside to attract passing swarms.  If this plan fails to work, then Monsieur Meilleur will bring us a swarm when he next has one.  It’s still a little early in the year for a swarm but we’ll be sure to post news when our bees arrive.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

New website address for our blog

We’ve moved!  Our new address (URL) is now, more simply,  The old address should redirect automatically but you may still want to update the address in your favourites or Atom/RSS reader.  

If you link to us, would you be so kind as to update your settings, merci !

Monday, April 18, 2011

Thunderbox is Go !

With the arrival of spring, and perhaps an overambitious expansion of our projects, our workload approaches overload.  We’re finishing work no earlier than 8pm each evening and only then thinking of what to cook for supper.  I’m not complaining, nor after sympathy, just saying how it is.  I have a pile of unread books and magazines but it’s as much as I can do, in bed with a chamomile tea, to read three pages before heavy eyelids descend and I’m obliged to give up.  Perhaps it was circumstances such as these that inspired American writer (1895 – 1990), Lewis Mumford  to argue that
“Today, the degradation of the inner life is symbolized by the fact that the only place sacred from interruption is the private toilet.”

So here I am, trousers down, taking a few contemplative minutes out alone with just my favourite French eco-building magazine for company … alone that is but for Julie, the deputy editor of said magazine and Clive, lecturer and head of the photography department of Sheffield University, quelle horreur !  To blame is the infamous sens de l'humour anglais.

I write magazine articles from time to time and had been promised three lucrative pages to write about our compost toilet and grey water treatment system but the financial climate has changed and the editor’s edict is that Julie must cover everything in Brittany to reduce costs (and thus my income!)  Therefore, Julie had come over one evening to take some photos and ask us some questions and with my oh-so-funny English sense of humour, I suggested a photo of me seated, reading their magazine.  The poor woman was most disturbed when I dropped my trousers but who goes to the toilet wearing their jeans?  Surely art is authenticity?  I kept my underpants on but she was clearly so unsettled that the photo was blurred when they looked at it at the office the following day.  The editor was, however, taken in by this jolly jape and Julie found herself back at our house for a second go.

By this time, we had the last of this winter’s willing volunteers, Clive and Wendy, staying.  Clive is a bit of a whizz, to say the least, with photography so Julie’s office Nikon got handed over.  I had prepared myself with two sets of underpants, so allowing even more authenticity while maintaining my modesty.  Not only did Clive adjust the complicated digital camera settings as he went, he then impressed everyone with some deft touches on Photoshop to change the colour balance (fluorescent lighting) and make me look (so I like to think) very much like George Clooney.

With respect to my occasional magazine articles I referred to above, I’ve another published in the latest (summer) edition of Permaculture Magazine.  Buy it to read all about our good friend Rick Mehmed.  “How to turn waste wood into business: How one man changed the face of wood recycling in Britain”.

Next blog :  introducing bees to our permaculture smallholding. 

Monday, April 11, 2011


Worm or beetle, drought or tempest, on a farmer’s land may fall,
Each is loaded full o’ ruin but a mortgage beat’s them all.

oil beetle
While in today’s financial climate, no one would dispute the malignant weight of a mortgage, Carleton’s couplet suggests that worms and beetles are bad too.  Was he a rep for an agricultural chemical company in between penning poems?  I jest, of course, and there are plenty of bugs and beasties that do for veggies but they’re not all bad.  Permaculture teaches one to look at these creatures in terms of equilibrium, rather than extermination but I also enjoy the aesthetic.

Maturity and living in the French countryside has diminished any fears I may’ve had in the proximity of creepy-crawlies, which have been replaced by an appreciative fascination.  For my recent 50th birthday, I received Richard Mabey’s new book, Bugs Britannica.  Like his other ‘Britannica’ books (Flora and Birds) Mabey doesn’t give you a regular identification guide but penetrates the lives of Britain’s bugs via history and folklore, prose, poetry and art along with the more usual natural history approach.  So, while I first turn to my Collins gem Insects and the Internet for identification, I quickly turn to Mabey’s book for an altogether more fun approach.

First up is some oil beetles we came across during a recent wander in our woods.  Our ones were very blue and had heavily textured head and thorax, so I reckon they are Meloe violaceus.  It can’t fly or even run very fast (hence I was able to get in close with my camera) and so its trick to escape the dustbin of evolutionary elimination of the weaklings is to exude nasty blistering goo (the ‘oil’) from between the joints of its legs, so putting off anyone higher up the food chain.  Not an endearing quality, you might think, but it has been well used in ‘traditional’ (should that be ‘barking mad’?) medicine.  To quote from Mabey’s book (and so you’ll see what a fun volume it is) :
In Spain, where the beetle is known as frailecillo (‘the little monk’), it is still used, immersed in bottles of olive oil, to ease sciatic pains.  A stronger concoction of bottled beetle was also used to burn off sores and carbuncles and to treat ‘wounds made by a mad dog'.  In Germany, powdered beetle was added to beer to make a drink called kaddentrank, which put a sick person ‘into a sudden and great sweat’ and so drew forth the injurious ‘humours’.  No mention of an oil beetle suppository though!

the dumbledor
Next up in our beetle hall of fame is the Dor beetle, Geotrupes stercorarius, also known (Harry Potter fans sit up and pay attention) as a dumbledor.  It is a dung beetle and needs to eat its own weight in dung each day.  Its eggs are laid in dung buried underground. 

Permaculture-wise, we thus have holes helping water infiltration into the soil, manure buried underground to feed hungry pasture roots and less dung on the surface means fewer nasty flies that bother cattle and horses.  When all said and done, a fine worker.  It’s a shame that they suffer from stock worming chemicals: chemicals that kill intestinal parasites in cows and sheep also go on to reduce the dung beetle population.  We’ve been following a program for the last two years or more of not worming our animals and keeping them healthy with herbal supplements and moving them onto fresh pasture often.  Which is why I was very happy to see this chap.  Even though s/he is dead (allowing the photo close-up!) it suggests that they are about.

Stop Press: next blog, how a photo of me sitting on our compost toilet made it into a national French magazine!