The buzz of Paris
Bees give the City of Light a honeyed glow
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