Monday, 18 April 2016

A few French frogs and newts at Chaunay.

When the LGV from Tours to Bordeaux was being constructed there were a large number of environmental impacts that had to be considered as a matter of law these days and I will go into them at a later date. Here I only want to touch upon one site, Le bocage humide de Chaunay a wetland site site in the south west of the Vienne departement of some importance.

All in all at this site some 120 hectares were purchased by Réseau ferré de France, (RFF), which is the company that owns and maintains the French national railway network.  The land is comprised of moderately managed small copses and hedged fields that have been cut for hay. It’s something of an exception among the wetlands of the department. With no connection to any river an alluvial aquifer feeds directly into the pools and ditches creating large area of seasonal surface water. With a handful of man made ponds left in existence another 7 have or are being created on the 45 hectares that have been contracted to CREN, (Conservatoire d’Espaces Naturels de Poitou-Charente), for 25 years. CREN in turn are establishing a management plan with farmers that use the land regarding types and timing of any hay cutting that will take into account the various species present.

The site is particularly rich and includes some of the rarer and endangered amphibian species that have been lost in huge numbers due to the vast destruction of ponds and habitat throughout the region over the last 50 years or so.  I bet like me you must get sick of hearing this, everywhere we look it’s the same old story and sadly not getting any better.

Anyway, on a positive note this particular site is relatively safe although there are some issues that will be difficult to resolve as we shall see.

When observing or compiling records for amphibian species at any given site it’s necessary to do this at night essentially combining two different means. The first is to listen and identify any of the frog or toad species present. To do this, having approached the pond, we then turn off all lights and wait 5 minutes as little by little they settle down and get back into their calling. As with most other creatures each species has its own unique call and for some it may be the only way we can determine their presence.  

Next it’s light and time for a careful search in the shallow margins. The water will be slightly warmer here and it’s where mating takes place for most amphibians. For many species there is no need to actually capture them, simple observation is enough, indeed strictly speaking it’s illegal to capture them without being authorised and absolutely illegal to deliberately harm or move one.

Of particular interest is the Triton de Blasius a hybrid newt that results from the mating between a male Great Crested Newt, (Triturus cristatus), and a female Marbled Newt, (Triturus marmoratus), which obviously requires the prescence of both species. Biologically the males are sterile and females only partly fertile. There is no typical Blasius but the essential features are the back with the markings of a Marbled Newt and the belly of a Great Crested Newt.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Photos below of Triton de Blasius.

Photo below of Male Common tree frog 

Photo below of an Agile frog

Photo below of Female Palmate Newt

Photo below of Female Great Crested Newt

Other species are also present at the same site - Marbled Newt, Common toad and Parsley Frog. 

There remains as I mentioned one not so small issue and that is the presence of Procambarus clarkii, Red Swamp Crayfish  an introduced species from the USA. This species can reach 85-90mm total length and are aggressive in behaviour presenting a threat to the native amphibian species that are there. Due to  the protected nature of this site only authorised trapping can take place but as it is a species that will move through ditches and indeed overland in wet conditions total eradication is unlikely. 

 Photo below  Procambarus clarkii, Red Swamp Crayfish


Saturday, 16 April 2016

Having honey bees without keeping them.

There appears to be more and more people that just want to have some honey bees in their garden or on their land. These same people are often met with a barrage of it isn’t possible, they will all die, you need to be trained, (like a donkey?), or you will be spreading disease and every other evil that paranoid beekeepers can dream up to protect their image of being masters of their craft and keepers of the grail. Fortunately not all bee keepers are that precious or narrow minded.


However would it surprise you to know that actually it’s perfectly possible and reasonable to have honey bees without playing with them?

LINK HERE Having honey bees without keeping them.

Hope you enjoy it, Chris

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Snakes and their names in France

This comes up in questions and conversation all the time and frankly there isn’t much point asking your neighbour, in fact mentioning snakes isn’t a good idea unless you want to run the risk of being treated to a diatribe on how they should all be killed.

There is a lot of confusion caused for English language speakers by the translations of French to English for snake “prefixes” resulting from historical errors that have never been corrected since the first dictionaries which have been copied ever since. These are the common or vernacular names in normal usage although again it’s unlikely that most French people know them.

Couleuvre is often thought to mean “Grass snake” but in fact it is used for a group of snakes in France, 6 in all, that reproduce by laying eggs, and are all but one harmless and non venomous.  

The snakes are. 

Couleuvre à collier – Grass snake
Couleuvre à échelons – Ladder snake
Couleuvre d'Esculape – Aesculapian snake
Couleuvre verte et jaune – Western whip snake
Couleuvre vipérine – Viperine snake
Couleuvre de Montpellier – Montpeiier snake, (venomous but with non retractable rear facing fangs at the rear of its mouth - generally harmless).

Coronelle, which won’t often be heard, is used for 2 species of snake in France that are harmless and non venomous  and that are “live bearing”, that is to say although not giving live birth in the standard sense it is when the babies hatch inside the mother and are then released to the outside world and can immediately fend for themselves.

The snakes are.

Coronelle de Bordeaux - Southern smooth snake
Coronelle lisse – Smooth snake

Vipère which are the true vipers, they are venomous, potentially harmful and have retractable forward facing fangs and are also “live bearing”.   

The snakes are.

Vipère aspic – Asp viper
Vipère péliade – Common Adder
Vipère d'Orsini - Orsini's viper
Vipère de Seoane (Vipère des Pyrénées) - Seoane's Viper


Thursday, 10 March 2016

Ponds in Poitou-Charentes France

Ponds in Poitou Charentes from an article in Living Magazine.

Living in this part of France with water on demand at the turn of a tap, it’s easy to forget that as little as 20 to 25 years ago there were many people in small hamlets that only had the well to supply their needs. Pumped domestic water for many is a relatively recent phenomenon in rural France. The further we go back, the more people depended on other means to provide and store water for themselves and their livestock which included different types of ponds, troughs and containers depending on the purposes they would be required for. In turn, these often provided an important habitat for a range of species, amphibians, reptiles, insects and plants. Sadly, many have been lost for one reason or another or have been altered to satisfy our desire for ornamentation.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Winter bee colony mortality rates.

A couple of interesting maps from the studies carried out for the European Commission certainly throw up more questions than answers.

Why should the UK suffer nearly 30% winter losses in the winter of 2012/2013 when in the same winter France only recorded losses of 14.2%, Germany 13.3% but Belgium an astounding 32.4%?  

From my own perspective anything around 15% could be considered normal with colonies that are not heavily manipulated.

Anyway, here are the maps and also a link to the document and other downloads.

Click on maps to enlarge.





Sunday, 28 February 2016

Soya bean cultivation in France

As if things weren’t bad enough already Soya seems set to be the latest money generator for the people that exploit the cereal lands of France 

Click on photos to enlarge

It was some 30 years ago that Soya bean trials were first made in my region of Poitou-Charentes but at that time it wasn’t economically worthwhile and it was cheaper to import from abroad. As the dominate producers, (Brazil, Argentina and the United States), moved to growing Genetically Modified Soya and imports swelled as a result of an ever increasing demand from the industrial production of both meat and poultry some thought there was an opportunity to try growing Soya again. With this in mind Eric Simon of the animal food manufacturer Alicoop, Pamproux along with some others approached Ségolène Royal, (then President of the Region), to provide assistance via additional Regional subsidies alongside those available from the CAP, (Common Agricultural Policy), for this crop. With the market price and subsidies combined it’s more profitable than sunflowers and in a couple of years regional production has exceeded 2000 hectares and is set to grow exponentially.

On the plus side it is a crop that like sunflowers can manage without irrigation. It also has no requirements for fungicides or insecticides, fixes nitrogen from the air in its root nodules and provides an alternative to the Genetically Modified alternatives that are imported, all of which in different circumstances would deserve our support.

So what’s the problem?

The simple answer is the vexed issue of the continuing decline of pollinators as a result of every last piece of half viable land being turned to the plough which was already bad enough in itself but it did at least have the small virtue of sunflowers that have usually been grown as the 4th crop that has to make up no less than 5% of the land surface of any given crop producer. If Soya replaces Sunflowers, of which there is every likelihood, it will leave much of the French countryside almost devoid of food in the summer for bees whether they are Honey bees, Bumble bees or Solitary species. The one thing Soya doesn’t have is flowers that open, they are small, remain closed and internally self pollinate. Add this to the other crops that are already grown over the largest land areas, that are wind pollinated and have no nectar, wheat, barley and maize and it’s clear that it’s an expanding “green desert”, pleasing on eye to those that don’t understand but a catastrophe for our pollinating insects.


Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The so called Flow Hive.

As this is a subject that isn’t going away and keeps being brought to light, (usually but not always by people that have little or no experience of keeping bees), I thought I should attempt a response of my own that I can use as and when required that makes my position and views clear.


Firstly for people that have no practical experience of bee keeping it should be noted that the structure that matters in this instance it isn’t actually a hive but what we bee keepers call a “super” in English or la hausse in French. This is a supplementary box that goes on top of a hive to enable the beekeeper to collect honey that is in excess to the colonies requirements. The fact that they can also supply a hive to go with it is neither here nor there as it’s the supplementary box and its constituent parts that are different. This supplementary box for honey production is usually separated from the hive proper with a grill that keeps the Queen in the hive itself.

My first objection may not seem very important to some people and that is that the device relies on artificial pre-formed honey comb structures made entirely from plastic when the natural situation would be bees making comb with their own wax.

These plastic frames are designed to shift vertically along the center (or midrib) of the honeycomb structure. This is operated by turning a key that shifts the midrib breaking open the back of the cells containing honey which then theoretically drains backwards, drips down the back of the plastic frame and is captured in a trough that leads to a tube that drains to the outside and into your jars or other containers of choice.  Once the comb is drained, you turn the key again which shifts the comb back into its original position when the bees supposedly chew open the wax seals on the front of the comb and refill them assuming somehow the bees know that the cells have been emptied from the back?  All of this is achieved without removing the lid or removing and exposing the comb and bees to the air.

All sounds wonderful but then the sales spin always does.

The first thing is that honey cells need to be filled and sealed with wax by the bees before the honey is ready to be extracted and stored. Taking honey before this has happened will usually mean that the water content is too high thus leading to fermentation, (more than 19%).

Now they make much of how kind this system is to the bees because there is no requirement to remove the lid and remove the frames. They claim that it’s possible to see if the cells are sealed simply by looking through the glazed side but anyone with experience will know this simply isn’t true. As you can see from the photo the faces of the frames simply aren’t visible even from the top with the lid removed which means the frames have to be lifted out to see the entire faces.

Another concern for me is honey robbing.  Pictures on the Flow™ Hive site also show honey dripping from the hive into open jars with no bees in evidence when in realty any source of exposed honey would immediately attract thousands of bees and potentially trigger a robbing frenzy as other hives in the area rapidly discover free, open air honey. Either way you wouldn’t be sitting there with open honey without there being bees all over and in it. Anyone that doubts this should stand by a hive with a teaspoon of honey and watch the speed with which bees arrive.

Then there is the not so small matter of the nature of the honey and whether it would actually just run out or not. Again anyone with actual experience of keeping bees in most European countries will know that there are some types of honeys, perhaps the majority, which simply won’t. Indeed there are some that can’t even be extracted by spinning out of the frame if they start to set in the frame, Oil seed rape being one of them which requires very precise timing for extraction and Heather honey is thixotropic and cannot even be spun out from the combs in an extractor and is usually pressed. These will clog and jam the mechanism requiring the Flowhive frames to be removed and cleaned with hot water.

Price?   Well if you want to spend over 500 US$ for a 7 frame flow hive when you can buy a regular Super with 9 waxed frames for €30 you must have money to burn.

So what if any are the benefits?

Zero as far as I can see, it won’t be less intrusive or kinder to the bees that much is clear and the super with the Flow frames will still need to be frequently removed, emptied of bees and cleaned. If your reason for buying this is because you are afraid of bees or you think it will make it easier you are mistaken.

If you really are determined to try one I reckon that if you wait there will be a glut of them on the market at knock down prices when people realise they aren’t all they are cracked up to be, or on the other hand I may be wrong.