The buzz of Paris

Bees give the City of Light a hon­eyed glow

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PATTI MILLER

One au­tumn day while I was liv­ing in Paris, I saw a swarm of bee-keep­ers in their white space-suits and net­ted hoods gath­ered near a per­gola in the Lux­em­bourg Gar­dens. Amid puffs of smoke from a hand-held ma­chine, they slid hon­ey­comb frames from bee-boxes and ex­am­ined them. It was puz­zling to ob­serve such a rus­tic scene in the mid­dle of ar­guably the most so­phis­ti­cated city in the world. What were bees and bee-keep­ers do­ing here?

On another day I saw Napoleon’s bee-mo­tif glass­ware at the Musee Car­navalet, and then the bee-em­broi­dered canopy over his throne at the Chateau de Fon­tainebleau, and the gilt bees on the walls of the chapel at Les In­valides, where he is buried. I’ve since learned that the ro­man­tic scene in the Lux­em­bourg Gar­dens was the Rucher Ecole du Lux­em­bourg, a school for bee-keep­ing, founded in 1856. I’ve dis­cov­ered that Napoleon used the bee sym­bol be­cause en­graved golden bees were found in the tomb of Childeric, the founder of the ear­li­est line of French kings, in the fifth cen­tury. Napoleon had bees em­broi­dered and painted as a sym­bol of con­ti­nu­ity to le­git­imise his rule.

Bees and Paris have a long history to­gether. In fact, bees are kept all over Paris, in­clud­ing, most im­pres­sively, on the roof of the Opera House, but those bees are a rel­a­tively re­cent chap­ter of the story. Mon­sieur Jean Pauc­ton was work­ing as a props man at the Garnier Opera House in the early 1980s and needed a place to keep a bee-hive he had just ac­quired while he moved house. Why not put his bees on the roof of the Opera for a while? When he re­turned to col­lect them, he found they had made more honey than ever. They loved the va­ri­ety of flow­ers and es­pe­cially the lin­den trees in the gar­den of the nearby Palais Royale. Pauc­ton be­came a teacher at the bee-keep­ing school in the Lux­em­bourg Gar­dens and his bees, and their honey, have be­come the most fa­mous in Paris.

But the Lux­em­bourg and Opera bees are not the only honey pro­duc­ers in Paris. The Grand Palais has 60,000, and the roof of a church, Tem­ple de L’Etoile, not far from the Bois de Boulogne, pro­duces 100kg of honey a year. There are hives on the top of the Ho­tel de Ville and the roof of the Na­tional Assem­bly, in the grounds of the Jardin des Plantes, and even among the gar­goyles on Notre Dame. There are now at least 400 hives on roofs and in gar­dens within cen­tral Paris.

Many of the parks have ruches, or bee-boxes, tended by de­voted keep­ers, in­clud­ing Jean-Jac­ques Shak­mundes, who also owns a shop, Les Abeilles, selling an ar­ray of honey prod­ucts. If you are a lo­cal, you can bring your own lit­tle pot and Jean-Jac­ques will fill it for you. There are candies made with honey, honey spreads, honey soap and pain d’epices, a de­li­cious honey spice cake.

Sev­eral Paris ho­tels also keep bees, in­clud­ing the Ho­tel Eif­fel Park with 180,000 on the roof; the staff present honey as gifts to guests and serve it at break­fast. At the Man­darin Ori­en­tal Paris, where the chefs use the honey in their pas­try recipes and, in the bar, two sig­na­ture cock­tails have been cre­ated, the Honey Kingston and Home­made Honey.

When I men­tion Paris bees and honey, peo­ple say, “I wouldn’t eat it, it would be pol­luted.” But Paris honey is ac­tu­ally less pol­luted be­cause coun­try honey is af­fected by the ex­ten­sive use of pes­ti­cides. Paris bees also pro­duce far more honey than their coun­try cousins, av­er­ag­ing 50kg of honey per bee-box, with only 15kg from rus­tic bees. The honey is more com­plex and rich in taste, too, be­cause there’s such a huge va­ri­ety of flow­er­ing plants in the parks and gar­dens and win­dow boxes of Paris.

The state of bees and bee-keep­ing in France, as in much of the world, is cause for con­cern. Ev­ery year be­tween 1995 and 2007, 300,000 to 400,000 French hives dis­ap­peared, vic­tims of pes­ti­cides, pol­lu­tion and dis­ease. In Europe, about 84 per cent of crop species de­pend di­rectly on in­sect pol­li­na­tors, es­pe­cially bees, so their sur­vival is vi­tal. The var­i­ous mairies, or city coun­cils, in Paris

Bee-boxes on the roof of the Grand Palais, top; bee­keep­ing stu­dents in the Lux­em­bourg Gar­dens, above

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