Sunday, June 24, 2012

Old Queens and virgin queens ...

Our venerable Britannic majesty has just celebrated 60 years on the throne.  Royalty is a subject I’d best avoid when visiting our neighbours, recently retired farmers Paul and Christiane.  Christiane buys magazines like Paris Match and avidly follows news of William and Kate, etc., but, if I happen to call in and sit down for a coffee and Paul catches sight of said magazine, he takes me to task on why ‘we’ still have a royal family.

I’ve tried explaining (from the fence-sitting position of being neither a royalist nor a republican) that they certainly bring in a lot of revenue, etc., but he won’t have it.  I’ve asked whether he’d have us bring back the guillotine, with which they did for their own noblesse: no, he recoils; he just wants them retired off.  We have a Queen with a (albeit symbolic) legal role and a working prime minister and the French have a president and a prime minister.  “Why do they need two persons then?” I counter.  Oh, they do different jobs, he responds, but with a doubt in his voice.  I have him on the ropes and ask why the Germans make do with a chancellor and a president, their president being as symbolic and un-politically involved as our queen.  Why does the British prime minister correspond with the French president but not the German one?  What does the French prime minister do?  I sense victory and we start talking about the safer subject of agriculture.  

We appear to be changing queens.  I’m not sure Elizabeth is about to abdicate; I’m referring to our new colony of bees.  There was a strange to-do a couple of days ago, with a cloud of agitated bees surrounding our hive; I’ve never seen anything like it.  As I called Gabrielle on her mobile to tell her, they all started making their way back into the hive.  She later rang our Brittany bee expert, Richard and we now think that this may have been a ‘re-queening’ with the new virgin queen exiting for an airborne shag-fest before returning to the hive to start laying.

our first swarm
When I popped back for a quick visit at lunchtime the day after, (I was helping dairy farmer Hubert re-roof a barn) I found Gabrielle looking intently at the bees.  “Is this what you saw yesterday?” she said.  Indeed it was but this time they formed into a stable lump suspended in a little silver birch.  Gabrielle phone Richard for advice while I got all our protective clothing and other beekeeping paraphernalia ready.  I then clipped of a few small branches to expose the swarm then, once Gabrielle had a firm grip on the branch, I cut it free and Gabrielle walked calmly towards the hive.  We’d prepared a ramp up to the opening of the hive (a sheet of wooden board covered in a white sheet) and Gabrielle then sharply shook the branch to dislodge the bees who fell with a sort of dry splosh onto the ramp  and immediately started making their way up the board and into the hive.  Phew!  And a great feeling that like the new queen, we were no longer bee ‘virgins’. (see video above)

Richard had told us to try to put them back in the original hive.  If they were re-queening, then this would work but if there were two queens (think Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I ) then they’d swarm again and then we would have to put them into another hive.

cutting down swarm
… and swarm again they did, two days later.  We installed our new mini-hive with just five frames, which Richard calls a nucleus and the French, une ruchette.  (Thanks to Andrew, friend and volunteer, who built this from offcuts of exterior ply only a couple of weeks ago.) Same technique but the bees didn’t seem 100% sure, a lot of them remaining in clusters on the outside and underneath.  Gabrielle phoned Richard and I called Olivier, who lives and keeps bees in an adjoining village.  Both of them are also experiencing bees expressing somewhat unusual behaviour.  Olivier turned up within five minutes in a white van that should have had a blue flashing light on top for added authenticity, I reckon.  While he was there, the bees did seem to go inside, aided by some gentle persuasion from Gabrielle with a soft brush and so we got some white wine from the fridge to boire un coup, the traditional way to say thank you.

queen excluder grill over entrance
Celebrations were perhaps a touch premature and the bees became unsettled again.  Olivier had given us a strip of plastic grill (cut from an old ‘queen excluder) with the advice to put it across the opening for a couple of days, once we were sure that the queen was inside (the key issue); this would prevent her from leaving again and causing another swarm.  Olivier left and the bees did swarm again but this time we let them enter by the top of the ruchette, them filtering down between the frames.  They all went in and Gabrielle filled up their feeder with sugar syrup and then had to rush off for a gig with her violin.  In early evening, with little activity, I attached the grill to the front.  All seems well and we now have two hives of bees.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012


Inspired by Tim’s educational Aigronne Valley Wildlife blog, here’s a slice of the wildlife that we share our bit of Brittany with.  First up, a recording made back in March this year of  male and female Tawny owls calling to each other. (Photo of tawny owl by Nigel Blake)

The classic “twit-twoo” is, in fact, an impression of two tawny owls calling to each other.  The female calls “ke-wick” (the ‘twit’) and the male responds
"hoo-hoo-oo-oo-oo".  When you hear "ke-wick hoo-hoo-oooo" you are listening to a pair of tawnys.  Both can be heard in my recording.  (More detail on the calls)

Buying plants for our (then new) wildlife pond, Gabrielle saw plenty of frogs in and around the plant containers.  She joked to the owner, “can I have that one please as it seems as if it comes with a free frog?” Marie Mad laughed and said she was welcome to catch some if she could and gave her a jar.  Gabrielle installed five tadpoles into our nascent watery ecosystem—the pond is the endpoint of our grey water treatment system—and we hoped for the best.

We’d also introduced some roach and were then concerned that they were eating some of the other wildlife, decimating our population of diving beetles and having a go at some of the smaller newts.  We thought of cane toads and Australia; had we done the right thing?

The plant life has since expanded greatly, increasing places for smaller beasts to hide, and the pond seems to be in a healthy equilibrium.  We did see the odd green frog last year and then this year we heard them … and there’s a lot more than five!  Whether these have anything to do with Gabrielle’s five tadpoles or they have made their way to our pond independently, they seem very happy.  This recording (click on 'video' above) was made late one evening, from our bedroom window. 

This isn’t one of our own honeybees (see previous blog) but rather one of the many species of bumblebees.  Looking at its colouring and the hairy back leg, my best guess is that this is a Red-tailed cuckoo bumblebee  Bombus rupestris.  Please post a comment if you can confirm this or otherwise tell me what it is.

Last up on this nature trail of a blog is a walk in our woods having prepared ourselves by going through a French book on soil indicator plants (click to download as a pdf) translating the names into English and then went for a stroll to see what we could find.  Gabrielle’s a lot better than I at plant identification but even she found some plants new to her despite the fact that we've walked through these woods many times.  I’d never even heard of the yellow archangel Lamiastrum galeobdolon before but we found one and it suggests a fertile, moist soil that is only lightly acid or neutral in pH.  It is also known as an ancient woodland indicator species.
yellow archangel Lamiastrum galeobdolon