Saturday, September 27, 2014

Of fruit and flies...

A curious end to the summer, marked by small, unripe fruits and a noticeable absence of wasps and hornets.  Bees in the pool, yes, but few hornets in the vines and fewer wasps.

Now that the warm weather seems to have settled in without interruption of rain or unseasonal cold, the grapes are drying on the vine.  

somewhere in there is a butterfly

I have tried picking bunches of grapes, using the step-ladder but felt too insecure - (old age, wobbly ladder not drink).  Fortunately, the very tall Alexandre - who is also used to walking on stilts - has now forbidden me to use the step-ladder and promised to pick the remaining bunches of grapes. Then we shall make juice, using the steam extractor, followed by grape jelly which is very good with game.  Yes, the hunt season has started!.

In the meantime, the fruit fly hovers over every fruit in the kitchen, lives in hordes in the compost bin which makes one reluctant to raise its lid, and drowns quietly in any unattended glass of wine or other slightly fermented drink.

Considerable skill is required to remove a fruit fly from a glass of fruit juice, whether alcoholic or not.   First, consider the glass - can one get in two fingers or only one?  Are one's fingers sufficiently clean or should one use a spoon handle? To tilt the glass, or not?   

A lot of liquid will pour off either side of whatever implement is being used, finger or spoon handle, taking the drowned fly with it.  If one pushes too hard with finger against glass, one risks smearing the insect against the glass - might just have poured its contents down the sink from the beginning!

On a more serious note:   a Japanese variety of the ubiquitous fruit-fly 'drosophila suzukii' is attacking one of the Perigord's major productions - the strawberry.  According to the local agricultural paper, this fruit fly arrived in the environs around 2011 and now, three years later, is causing enormous physical and so financial damage to the second strawberry crop.  There is talk of a  loss of 600 tonnes of the fruit, resulting in a potential financial loss of 2.3 m euros....No joke, especially considering the economic repercussions (employment not the least of these) as well as the potential need for chemical pesticides....Research is being done on means of distracting the fly (using baker's yeast and powdered sugar) as well as trying to determine its natural parasites.

And here is a butterfly that has had too much grape juice...!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Bees in the Blue

One of the many basic rules of country life is that humans have to share place with other, non human forms of life. So, for example, I share my house with various insects, spiders,a variety of flies, the odd millipede,or hornets with a poor sense of direction.   In the house it is a constant battle to keep an acceptable balance, that is a balance acceptable to me. Outside the house humans have much less power.   .

BUT I draw the line at sharing my swimming pool with wild bees.  For the last month, ever since the weather has got reliably warm, ever greater numbers of bees have been congregating at the deep, top left hand corner of the pool. As so often with human versus other life form reactions, my hostility is based on fear.  I react severely to wasp and hornet stings, and the reaction has got worse with the years.  Yes, I know that - in theory - bees only sting in desperation. But a drowning bee is probably pretty desperate.
bees lining up on pool cover

When the pool cover is on, the bees line up in orderly fashion along its edge.  As the cover is rolled up, a little cloud of buzzing bees forms at the end furthest from the winding wheel - fortunately.   Then, as the rolled cover drips, part of the cloud settles on the paving, more enterprising bees head into the roll of damp plastic. Leaving the pool cover rolled means less bees in the pool, but still an unsettling number hovering around. And still some desperately paddling, drowning bees in the pool.
Bees, bees everywhere

I tried luring them away from the pool by providing another source of water, a neat aluminium barquette, weighted down by a stone, filled with pool water.  I assumed the saltiness was probably necessary to them.  This was useless.  The pool and its cover were still preferred though there were a couple of drowned bees floating near the stone.

Then I wondered if the very blueness of the pool water was the attraction. So I purloined a plastic baby lunch plate, put in some chunks of white coral to imitate the rough paving, added pool water, went away, waited.  Yes, that was acceptable - but there were more bees, enough for the new,small pool, the paving stones and the rolled up pool cover.  Sigh.

new bee pool

Apparently bees not only drink water, the worker bees also carry water to the hive in order to build winter quarters.  So, if the bee-keeper has not provided sufficient water near the hives - or if the bees are 'wild' - they will fly as far as necessary to get water.  There are many suggestions wandering round the internet as to how to determine the source of the bees, each more time consuming, slightly more absurd than the precedent. 

Since these bees do not appear to be 'swarming' there is no point in finding the nearest bee-keeper to come and fetch them home.  One has been recommended to sit and watch which way the bees fly when they leave the water and head for home.   It is said that bees fly above tree level when homing....given that our pool is surrounded by trees which are 40 plus metres high, and the bees fly individually, this is going to be difficult.

SO, until the bees have decided that their task is finished, or we stumble upon the location of the hive by accident and call in a bee-keeper, people will have to share the pool with bees.   The rule is: left hand side as you head for the deep end will be reserved for bees, right hand side for humans.  Now I just need someone who speaks bee to inform the bees....

Oddly, there are no bees anywhere near the beautifully situated, sun-kissed pool that is reserved for the holiday makers. And, apparently, in 'Bee-Keeping 101', students are recommended to supply plenty of water near the hives ...even if only to keep them out of the neighbour's pool....

Bee free pool - holiday makers only!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Autumn arrives, in boots.

Autumn arrived mid August at La Chaise. The weather gods gave up trying to be nice and concentrated on being unreliable. Fruitfulness was rampant rather than mellow.  Heavy rain storms beat plums, apples and unripe walnuts from the trees.  Intermittent bursts of sunshine fermented the fallen fruit, confused bees and butterflies. I saw one of each, rocking on the open wound of a fallen plum. They seemed friendly enough. Picking plums became dangerous because of the dopey hornets clinging to the fruit.

Our plum trees were obviously tortured in their youth.   Just look at the twisted trunks, the strangled bark. It is not just that the sheep use them as scratching posts.  Even the young plum saplings, self sown, are beginning to torture themselves into twisting.   Some of the trees have little or no heart-wood, are just hollow.   It is a wonder that they produce fruit at all.

Two tortured fruit tree trunks

The sheep get the runs from eating too many fallen plums, followed by wet grass. We worried about letting them into the former horse fields which are heavy on clover and different kinds of vetch. Worry unnecessary - the sheep suddenly remembered that there were other kinds of fallen fruit - namely chestnuts and acorns.   It was difficult to get them out of the woods, even when it was not raining.

Books on sheep-rearing strongly suggest that sheep predominantly eat grass.    Obviously the La Chaise Clun Forest sheep, when young lambs, were not read these books at bed-time.   Indoctrination classes may be necessary this winter. Something along the lines:  what you are eating now is hay, you like hay, hay used to be grass, you will like grass.   Sheep look at people with a peculiarly blank, slit-pupilled stare that leaves in the balance the answer to: which one of us is stupid?
Attractive but deadly

Formal confirmation of autumn's arrival was given by the emergence of the  autumn crocus flowers.  Their pale lilac petals look too fragile to be able to pierce the earth - but they do, every year in the same place.   The fragility is doubly deceptive .   This flower is extremely poisonous.  One local name for it is 
tue-chien, dog killer.  Apparently it is similar to arsenic in its effect (death) and there is no known antidote.  Curiously, many of the fungi that come up at this time also are inedible - or plain poisonous.

Red for danger?

A secondary confirmation came when the Official Local Crone was reported to have predicted a morning frost for Tuesday 22nd August.....She was wrong.   The weather gods got their act together, remembered that 'Indian summer' should be on their activity schedule.   The warm weather has duly arrived.

It is not that one wants to complain but this does mean that a glass of wine, or any other slightly alcoholic, fruit based beverage cannot be left unattended or uncovered.  The minute but suicidal fruit flies are present again and they will be in the glass in less time than it takes to sneeze. (Or the bottle, corks must be replaced pronto.)  Also the house flies are getting curious and the Queen Hornets are looking for winter quarters....

As always, the arrival of autumn was abrupt, unexpected.  Suddenly we are closing curtains in the evening, not opening them until after eight in the morning.    The year is suddenly shorter.    Must make a calendar note for next year.....