Saturday 20 April 2024

The Barbegal Mills

The Barbegal aqueduct and mills are situated in Fontvieille, Bouches-du-Rhône, near Arles. Often hailed as "the greatest known concentration of mechanical power in the ancient world," it has 16 overshot water wheels, where the outflow of one wheel propells the successive wheel, making it the largest ancient mill complex on record.

The mills are at a junction of two aqueducts that were integral to Arles' water supply. The aqueducts merge just north of the mill complex, and were regulated by a sluice controlling the water's flow to the mills.

The aqueducts where they cross the D82.
You can see the modern road.

We were there on a stinking hot day at the end of June last year. We parked in the official car park by the aqueducts that fed the mills, and followed them up quite a steep hill. That in itself was quite a build up, and leads to a channel cut through the top of the hill.

Walking uphill alongside the aqueducts

The channel cut through the hilltop

The mills are arranged in two parallel sets of eight, progressing down the hillside, each with its own waterwheel. You can see remnants of masonry either side of the water channels and massive foundations of the individual mills. It operated from the start of the 2nd century to the close of the 3rd century, and could grind an estimated at 4.5 tons of flour per day.

Looking downhill at the ruins of the mills

Although all is now in ruins it's quite easy to see how it worked, and artists impressions of how the mill looked at it peak abound.


I'm not sure I'd travel all the way to Arles to see it, but it's not that far from the Pont du Gard.

Friday 19 April 2024

Traffic Calming in Etableau

Etableau is a hamlet with a very large ruined chateau, close to le Grand Pressigny. The road from Preuilly to le Grand Pressigny passing through Etableau is narrow, lined with houses on both sides, and always has cars parked on one side.

Not long after we moved to France a 30km/h speed limit was introduced where the road passes the houses, and a year or two later an electronic speed sign was erected. It can feel a bit sketchy driving through the hamlet because people still drive too fast for the view they have of the road ahead.

Yesterday I was driving to le Grand Pressigny and noticed that between Monday afternoon and Thursday morning temporary chicanes have been installed at each end of the hamlet. If these are successful in slowing traffic down no doubt they will be recreated in concrete.

Approaching from le Grand Pressigny 

Departing towards Preuilly-sur-Claise 



Thursday 18 April 2024

Lamb Curry and Weird Rice

That's not it's official title - officially it's gosht anna palak nu shaak. 

It's a recipe I found in The Guardian a couple of years ago but hadn't cooked before now. I followed the recipe faithfully except for a couple of things: I didn't add salt to the curry sauce, I used chard instead of baby spinach (didn't have any) and I used ordinary white rice, not basmati. The lamb was a couple of bags of trimmings that came with the side of lamb we buy every year, and is perfect for this sort of dish.



It's a super easy recipe, even if it reads a bit complicated. The level of spice was spot on, and the rice actually cooked fully and wasn't just hard pellets. I'm not usually a fan of any sort of rice cooked in a frying pan, but this was good.


It even looked ok on a plate - most unusual for me.



Wednesday 17 April 2024

Rare Adders Tongue Fern in the Orchard

Adder's Tongue Fern Ophioglossum vulgatum (Fr. Langue de serpent). 

Five years ago I could hardly believe my eyes! A rare and protected fern suddenly appeared in the orchard. I had no idea where it had come from and I'd never seen it before anywhere, despite spending lots of time with botanists and seeing many rare and protected plants here. 

Adders Tongue Fern Ophioglossum vulgatum, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.

This year I'm thrilled to see that the Adder's Tongue is everywhere in the orchard, stretching in a broad band from north-east, where the original station is, to south-west, up under the sour cherries. I've never seen so many individual plants of it.

Adders Tongue Fern Ophioglossum vulgatum, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.

I'm told that it is a plant whose presence indicates well managed meadow and old meadow. It is widespread but scattered in lowland France, and not common. Here in Centre-Val de Loire it is rare and protected, considered threatened, but it is the sort of plant that is prone to being under-recorded because it is small, has a short season above ground, and not showy. In the Brenne the fern is recorded along roadsides and grasslands on poor soil, often in places that get both very wet and very dry in the course of the year. The species is a ZNIEFF determinant (meaning that its presence indicates a site of interest ecologically). It is at risk when land is drained, when grassland is modified ('improved' or urbanised) or is abandoned and mowing for hay ceases. The population is in strong regression because of all these things.
 
Adders Tongue Fern Ophioglossum vulgatum, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.


My serious botanist friends ask me every year if the Ophioglosse has reappeared. This year I sent them all an email to let them know.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Lichen Outing to the Chateau de Brou

Here are some photos from the Botamyco37 outing to the Chateau de Brou yesterday. We were focusing on lichen, but there were some interesting insects too. As ever, Marie-Claude did a great job of organising and providing expert field teaching.

Nature outing, Indre et loire, France.
Patrick, Marie-Christine and me in action. Photo courtesy of Louisette Chaslon.


Violet Oil Beetle Meloe violaceus (Fr. Meloe violet), mating. Male is below, female above. He is eating a buttercup stem, one of their favourite foods. These beetles are the object of some conservation concern as their numbers are declining.

Violet Oil Beetle Meloe violaceus, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.
 

Marie-Claude, left, introducing us to the startling white lichen called Sporodophoron cretaceum, almost entirely restricted to oak trunks, and identifiable because it reacts by turning yellow when potassium is applied.

Sporodophoron cretaceum, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.


Many lichenologists favourite little lichen, the uncommon Goldeneye Teloschistes chrysophthalmus (Fr. Œil d’or). It is always found on twigs, and likes being in the wind. It is very sensitive to pollution, so has been in decline in Europe for decades.

Goldeneye Teloschistes chrysophthalmus, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.



Trox sp, a hide beetle that I was lucky to see. They are uncommon, and live in birds nests, eating dessicated organic matter. I think it is quite rare to see one trundling about in the open, and I had to ask for help in identifying it (many thanks Philippe Zorgati).

Hide beetle Trox sp, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.
 

Variospora aurantia a lichen of limestone, which we found on the stones of the chateau itself. It can be distinguished from its lookalike and very common cousin V. flavescens by looking at the lobes of the thallus (ie the wavy outer edge of the lichen). V. aurantia has flattened lobes, a bit like spatulas; V. flavescens has rounded lobes, a bit like fingers.

Variospora flavescens, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.
 

Black Shield lichen Tephromela atra var calcarea, something of an old friend for me, as I remember learning this one on a previous outing led by Marie-Claude. This variety is very common on limestone, but there is another variety that grows on flint, and another one that grows on tree bark.

Black Shield lichen Tephromela atra, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.
 

A mating pair of the fever fly Dilophus antipedalis. These are in the family Bibionidae, and typically there is sexual dimorphism like this, with females being larger and having long heads with small eyes. Males have large eyes and are smaller. This pair were just a few millimetres long.

Fever fly Dilophus antipedalis, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.

Photographing a small fly, France.
Me trying to photograph the flies. Photo courtesy of Louisette Chaslon.
 

We don't often have somewhere so grand for the outing leader to do their introduction. We are very grateful to the Chateau's owners for allowing us access.


Introduction to lichen, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.


Dark-edged Bee Fly Bombylius major (Fr. Grand Bombyle), female, which was lurking around a Common Furrow Bee Lasioglossum calceata colony, waiting its chance to lay eggs in the bees' nests.

Dark-edged Bee Fly Bombylius major, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.

Monday 15 April 2024

Touraine Asparagus

Green asparagus, Touraine, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Steamed green asparagus.

At the end of April and the beginning of May, asparagus is the flagship product on people's plates at home and in restaurants. This year, because of the weather, producers are expecting a bumper crop.

White asparagus, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Locally produced white asparagus at the market.

The epitome of seasonal produce, asparagus features on the shelves between April and June. In Indre et Loire one finds Touraine asparagus, especially grown around Bourgueil and Richelieu. The label 'Coeur de Touraine' is the most prized, only held by 17 producers around Richelieu, who produce between 200 and 250 tonnes per annum, depending on the year, with 90% white asparagus and the rest green.

Green asparagus, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Locally produced green asparagus at the market.

Did you know that whether white, green or purple it is all the same plant? The colour depends on the method of cultivation. White asparagus grows underground, with out seeing the sun's rays. Purple asparagus is the same variety as the white, but the tip emerges from the soil to see the sun, which gives it the purple colour. Finally, the green grows entirely in the fresh air. 

White asparagus, Touraine, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
White asparagus from Braslou, near Richelieu.

Personally I never buy asparagus from the supermarket, always from a local producer who I can trust to have cut the stems no more than 24 hours before bringing his asparagus to market. According to my asparagus producer of preference, asparagus in the supermarket has been cut about three weeks before it hits the shelves, due to how the supermarket supply chains work. This means it has lost moisture and its sugars have converted to starches, meaning it is a less tasty, tougher vegetable.

Friday 12 April 2024

Monster Molluscs You Could See in the Touraine Loire Valley

The Touraine Loire Valley is home to some impressively large land snails and slugs.

This Yellow Cellar Slug Limacus flavus (Fr. Limace des caves) and its family live in our kitchen. They are nocturnal, so we rarely see them. For scale, the tiles are 20 cm².

Yellow Cellar Slug Limacus flavus, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

I encounter Ash-black Slugs Limax cinereoniger (Fr. Grande limace) in the larger well established forests. They can be pale and stripey like this one...

Ash-black Slug Limax cinereoniger, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

 ...or they can be charcoal grey with a pale grey dorsal ridge.
Ash-black Slug Limax cinereoniger, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

Red Slugs Arion rufus (Fr. Grande loche) can be encountered anywhere -- in the forest, on waste ground, in gardens and often on roads, paths and tracks.

Red Slug Arion rufus, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

The famous edible Roman/Burgundian Snail Helix pomatia (Fr. Escargot de Bourgogne) occurs in isolated small populations on sites that don't get much human disturbance or are managed with a light touch. They like semi-natural parks or woodland edges. A significant number are white...
Roman/Burgundian Snail Helix pomatia, Loir et Cher, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
 
...but most are brown.
Roman/Burgundian Snail Helix pomatia, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

A Turkish Snail Helix lucorum (Fr. Escargot turc) with a friend's hand for scale. Under the hand is a Glow-worm Lampyria noctiluca (Fr. Lampyre) larva. They prey on snails by injecting them with toxin then waiting for them to die, so this snail may already be doomed.

Turkish Snail Helix lucorum and Glow-worm Lampyria noctiluca larva, with human hand for scale, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

Thursday 11 April 2024

Saving Swifts in the Touraine Loire Valley

In September last year the church of Saint Ours got struck by lightning and the east belltower was damaged. Since then it has been swathed in a maze of scaffolding and the town authorities, who own the building, are getting ready to repair it. The project will cost a quarter of a million euros, which is half the town's annual heritage buildings conservation budget.

Saint Ours, loches, scaffolded. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.

Some years ago I had alerted the local swift conservation association SOS Martinets that there was a swift colony that nested in the roof and crevices in the walls of the church. So naturally they were very concerned when scaffolding went up, and arranged a meeting with the Technical Services Manager for the town. They invited me along and we presented the case for swift conservation.

Although he admitted he didn't know the difference between a swift and a swallow (fairly normal for the general public unfortunately) he was open to what we had to say. Fortunately the scaffolding isn't going to block the flight path or entry to any of the known nests. However, it was worth showing Frédéric Lardy well constructed nest boxes and alternatives for partially blocking niches to allow swift entry.

 

Frédéric Lardy, Technical Services Manager for the town Loches on the left, Carolyn and Tim Knowlman from SOS Martinet on the right.

Swift conservation meeting, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.

We pointed out that if nest boxes go up they must be with the entry slot low down on the front, not at the top, as swifts have small weak legs and tend to plummet to the bottom of the nest box if forced to enter from the top. We also showed several methods of blocking up boulins (old wooden scaffolding holes) so that pigeons cannot use them as nest holes, but swifts can enter via a narrow slit and can nest in safety behind a piece of stone or slate. The result is aesthetically acceptable, in keeping with the building, and easy for the masons to install. We have had several sad instances where masons unknowingly have completely blocked and filled nest holes when buildings have been restored. Not only is this a disaster for breeding swifts, but they share the holes with lizards and insects, who are also put at risk when the holes are blocked.

Monsieur Lardy informed us that the municipal authorities are keen to add swift conservation to their list of responsibilities, and keen to let the public know they are doing so by putting something on the town website. Tim and Carolyn, my friends from SOS Martinets, are going to work on some text and provide photos. They also gave Monsieur Lardy some technical documents to help with ordering the construction and placement of a few temporary nestboxes on the scaffold. We don't expect the swifts to use the nests in this case but they serve to help raise awareness of their presence and importance.

 

Swifts flying around a nest site in Loches (photo from our archive).

Common Swift Apus apus, Indre et loire, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.

The swifts are migratory and will arrive from Africa in May to breed in the Touraine Loire Valley, and they will leave again in August. They come back year after year to the same nest. There are several species, but in the Touraine we only get the so-called 'Common' Swift Apus apus (Fr. Martinet noir). Their population has plummeted in recent years by at least 50% but Switzerland, Italy and Spain have been doing great conservation work. I can tell you from personal experience that watching the swifts gregariously wheeling and making their distinctive screaming whistle aerial call whilst enjoying an aperitif on a summer evening in Florence or Granada will be one of the highlights of your visit to these cities. We hope Loches can be similar.

Further reading: SOS Martinets.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Fairy Longhorn Moths in the Touraine Loire Valley

If you see a tiny insect with unfeasibly long antennae in spring and summer it is likely to be a fairy longhorn moth. They may be tiny, but people notice them because they are so striking, and every year one or two people ask me what they are if we see them on a walk or an outing. It seems many people think they are flies as I have several times in the past been asked to identify 'these flies', even by experienced naturalists. The one in the photo is a female. The males have antennae that are half as long again.

Female Fairy Longhorn Moth Adela reaumurella, Loir et Cher, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Female Green Fairy Longhorn Moth Adela reaumurella (Fr. Adèle verdoyante).

They often congregate in large numbers, with males flying around trees in the sun, and sitting waving their antennae back and forth.

Tuesday 9 April 2024

A Normandy Invasion Survivor

Several years ago we had the opportunity at Chateauroux to see and get on board the last French DC3 that is still airworthy. Like 70 others of its kind at the time in the mid-20th century, this plane crisscrossed the skies, wearing the livery of Air France.

 

The Douglas DC-3 (Dakota) that took part in the Normandy invasion, then saw service with Air France.

last airworthy DC3 in France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.

It was built in 1943 and participated in the Normandy Invasion of June 1944. Its job was to tow gliders and carry parachutists. Then in August 1944 it was down south, for the Allied landings in Provence. After the War and with Germany partitioned, it was one of the planes in the famous Berlin airlift (in French the name for this operation translates as the 'aerial bridge'.) Afterwards it carried celebrities and government officials, including President de Gaulle, and future President Mitterand, when he was a Minister of State.

 

  The plane has both a perspex dome (for celestial navigation using a sextant) and modern GPS based navigation.

Inside the cockpit of the last airworthy DC3 in France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.

Air France retired the plane in the 1970s and it became the Central African Republic President Bokassa's private plane, before being refitted as a cargo plane. Today it is a sort of flying historic monument, sponsored by Air France, making appearances at airshows around the country and legendary amongst aviation enthusiasts.

I've no doubt, as a Normandy Invasion survivor, this plane will be extra busy this year of the 80th anniversary of the famous Allied landings that signalled the beginning of the end of the Second World War in Europe. So if you are up in Normandy, do keep an eye out for it, and if you are as lucky as we were, you might even get the chance to hop onboard and get a feel for what it was like to fly.

 

Monday 8 April 2024

Roscoff Onions

Finistere is in the north-west of France, part of Brittany, and around the small port of Roscoff in Finistere they grow onions. The 'oignon de Roscoff' (Roscoff onion) has the French/European geographical protection certificate AOC, meaning to be marketed as the famous Roscoff onion the onions must have been produced in a certain limited geographical area around Roscoff.

Roscoff onions, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.

The story goes that a monk who had spent time in Portugal brought the distinctive sweet pink onions back with him in the 17th century. He taught the nuns at the Convent of Roscoff how to cultivate them.

Later Roscoff's proximity to the United Kingdom led to cargoes of onions being sent off in the summer with teams of men who would walk the length and breadth of the United Kingdom selling their onions door to door. They became iconic and a sort of stereotype of what a Frenchman looked like for many British. They were nicknamed 'Onion Johnnies', a somewhat patronising name that they themselves ultimately adopted and owned.

Chopped Roscoff onions, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.

The Johnnies rode bicycles and carried the onions in strings around their necks. The name 'Onion Johnny' may be a bit patronising, but in fact the onions were much appreciated by the British housewives and cooks of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. And the French producers knew their product was superior to the onions the British could grow, and were proud of them.

At the peak of this trade, in the interwar period, there may have been as many as 2000 Onion Johnnies.

Roscoff onions are a medium sized onion, characterised by their copper pink skins.

Saturday 6 April 2024

It's Been a Year

In all the excitement of our salon and bedroom being insulated we've almost forgotten that today is the anniversary of our double glazing being installed.

The new windows made a much bigger difference than we had expected - evidence, I think, of how bad the old windows were. The reduction of noise inside the house, lack of rattles, and absence of drafts has been really noticeable. We're too far past winter for the insulation to really show its effects, but we're hoping that this coming summer the house will remain comfortable for longer 'if' we have a heatwave.

The house still isn't completely in order after the insulation project. We're still debating curtains and placement of furniture, but we are slowly progressing.

Friday 5 April 2024

Three Butterflies You Could See in Spring in the Loire Valley

If the weather is sunny we could start seeing butterflies on the wing in February, but for any real variety you really have to wait until mid-April. Here is a selection of three rather lovely ones that you could see in your garden if it is not too manicured, and on walks that include habitat with bushes and brambles, or ditches and damp grassland.

Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni (Fr. le Citron) - with wings shaped to look like leaves, males are lemon yellow, and females are pale yellow. They have an orange spot on each wing on their upperside and a pinky brown spot on the undersides, with carmine pink antennae. If they are threatened they can fall into a cataleptic state and appear to be dead. They hibernate as adult butterflies over winter, hidden in ivy or holly foliage. The caterpillars eat Buckthorn.

Male Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

 

Orange Tip Anthocharis cardamines (Fr. l'Aurore) - males have orange tips to their forewings, females do not. This species overwinters as a chrysalis and can emerge as early as March. The caterpillars eat Brassicas, notably Garlic Mustard and Lady's Smock, but lots of others too.

Male Orange Tip Anthocharis cardamines, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.


Green Hairstreak Callophrys rubi (Fr. Thecle de la ronce) -  males and females are almost identical, with green undersides and brown uppersides. They overwinter as chrysalises and can emerge as early as March. The caterpillars eat Birch, Brambles and many other plants.

Green Hairstreak Callophrys rubi, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.


Thursday 4 April 2024

Wet Feet

I mentioned on Monday that it had been damp.

What I didn't say is that a number of our friends had been affected by the flooding on Sunday night. Jim and Pauline (who live many metres above the river in la Guerche) ended up with water in their basement, but Dennis and Angela topped that with about 20cm of water in the house, and having to be rescued by a boat full of Pompiers. Dennis was last seen on the blog teaching me to do pierres apparentes.

This video (in French) shows the extent of the flooding, and at about 1:10 you can see Dennis and Angela being bought to dry land in the rescue boat.


We went over on Monday morning to see if we could help, but Jim and Pauline had beaten us to it, and the mopping out was already finished. To raise morale we had taken brooms, buckets, and a pile of raspberry slices.

The water has receded remarkably quickly, no doubt helped by the fact that there are now no barriers on the rivers between here and the sea.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Agnes Stays Put

There is currently a big temporary exhibition on Art in the Time of Charles VII at the Cluny Museum of Medieval Art in Paris. The star piece was to have been the alabaster tomb effigy (Fr. gisant) of Agnes Sorel, 15th century mistress of Charles VII. Her permanent home is the church of Saint Ours in Loches and she has never been lent before. As it turns out, neither is she this time, despite everyone's best intentions.

The statue was commissioned by Charles VII in 1450 when his beloved Agnes died suddenly at the age of 28. Forensic investigations of her remains in 2004 revealed that the cause of death was undoubtedly mercury poisoning, but whether it was accidental or deliberate murder is impossible to say for sure. 

Effigy of Agnes Sorel, loches, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.

On 19 February a group of specialist art transporters arrived to pack her up and take her to Paris. The effigy alone weighs a bit over 200 kg, quite apart from the black marble slab she lays on, and the conservator assigned to oversee the job was nervous, just because of the prestige of the sculpture.

Despite all possible care being taken, an old crack started to open up as the team began to manipulate the sculpture and lifting it by just a few millimetres. Like many tomb monuments of this type, the effigy was badly damaged in 1793 during the Revolution. She lost her hands, a prayerbook she had been holding and reading, the canopy over her head, and the sculpture was shattered into several pieces. She was put back together in the 19th century and new hands added (now meeting in pious prayer and without the book). The break at her waist was repaired and during a conservation restoration in 2015 remained stable. But the museum and heritage professionals present were shocked to see how much it started to open up during the recent activity. The effigy was clearly much more fragile than they had expected.

Effigy of Agnes Sorel, loches, France. Photo by loire Valley Time Travel.

Several solutions were tried, including inflatable supports, but moving her was finally deemed too risky. The preparations and loan negotiations for the exhibition had been going on for a year prior to this, so it was a hard decision to have to make.

The Loches town council were hoping that the focus on Agnes would lead to good publicity with the potential for a higher profile for this lovely rural town that is just a bit too far off the current Loire Valley tourist trail.

The exhibition at the Cluny runs from 12 March to 16 June. But if you want to see Agnes you will have to come to Loches. The Cluny's reaction to this blow was extremely gracious and professional. They understand the objects in loan arrangements like this can never be put at risk, and as the borrower, they had the legal and financial burden of responsibility for the operation. But it means a frantic last minute rearrangement of the exhibition for them, and because of the short time frame, no other image of Agnes Sorel will be on display. There will however be illuminated manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, goldsmithing work, stained glass, and tapestries to flesh out this often overlooked period. The exhibition hopes to show how the innovative Flemish style blended in France with the Italian awareness of their antiquities, creating a distinctive aesthetic ideal, particularly in the Loire Valley with the influential presence of Jean Fouquet.

I have to say that I am rather relieved. She is a major part of my presentation of the Royal Citadel when I do tours of Loches and to have had to say to clients that the star attraction was away on loan for the whole spring would have been a bit disappointing.

For now, the crack in Agnes's side is very visible, but a conservator will be commissioned to make an aesthetic repair.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

Look Out for Grey-backed Mining Bees in the Touraine Loire Valley

 

Grey-backed Mining Bee Andrena vaga, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

Grey-backed Mining Bees Andrena vaga are clothed in a grey fur coat and are visible from March to May in sandy places (like the island in the Loire at Amboise). Males have a rather impressive white moustache, but are a bit smaller than the females, which you will sometimes see partly covered by bright yellow willow pollen. The species is not aggressive and is completely harmless. Each of them live in their own little hole in the ground, but around them there will be dozens, if not hundreds of others.

Grey-backed Mining Bee Andrena vaga, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

They are solitary bees, specialising in feeding on willow catkins. They live for a year, but as adults, just a few weeks.

Grey-backed Mining Bee Andrena vaga, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

If you see a pale grey furred bee, about 11-15 mm long, with a shiny black abdomen, in a sandy place or on willow catkins, it will be this species. If you see a little conical pile of sand with a hole in the middle it is most likely a bee's nest. They like sunny semi-open sites, where they can rapidly warm up in the morning sun. If you find one nest there will undoubtedly be others as they nest in large colonies, although each hole belongs to a single individual female. They only travel about 250 metres to forage, so there will always be willow close by to the nest colony.

Grey-backed Mining Bee Andrena vaga, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

When the sun is warm enough in the spring the bees down in their holes in the sand will awake from their hibernation. The males will emerge a few days earlier than the females. They position themselves at the entrance to a nest hole and wait for a female. The females on the other hand, only have one thing on their mind when they emerge -- gathering pollen. Sometimes males are so keen to mate that multiple males form a mating ball around a single female.

Grey-backed Mining Bee Andrena vaga, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

The females dig a nest hole to a depth of about 25 to 60 centimetres underground. The tunnel goes straight down, with a dozen side branches, which end in brood cells. In each of these chambers the bee will deposit willow pollen mixed with nectar and formed into a ball. Then she will lay an egg into each ball. After about six weeks of reproductive activity, the adult female will die. When the larvae hatch they have enough food to survive until they enclose themselves in a cocoon later in the spring. By the end of summer the cocoon will house an adult bee, but it will not emerge until the following spring.
 

Grey-backed Mining Bee Andrena vaga, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.

These bees are completely harmless to humans and domestic animals. They are not aggressive because they don't have to fight to defend themselves against nest invaders (instead they make fake nest holes to fool the Lathbury's Nomad Bees Nomada lathburiana which parasitise them). If you want to give them a helping hand by all means put a pile of sand (ideally at least 30 cm deep, and quite compacted) in a sunny spot in your garden and plant some willow. 

Grey-backed Mining Bee Andrena vaga, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
 

Three key facts about Mining Bees that you can impress your friends with:

  • they don't make honey;
  • they only live a few weeks as adults -- just long enough to ensure that her descendants have the best possible chance of survival;
  • they are parasitised by a so-called 'cuckoo bee', Lathbury's Nomad Bee, which lay their eggs in the reproduction chambers. The larvae of these cuckoo bees hatch early and eat the mining bee egg and the pollen.

Grey-backed Mining Bee Andrena vaga, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.