I didn’t realise when we posed for this picture that Marie Laure Legroux and I were making an impromptu version of the French tricolore: Blue, White and Red. There’s selfie solidarity for you!
I had set out for Paris a month after the November terrorist attacks. Nothing heroic. Just quietly thoughtful about the fact that Paris had already experienced the Charlie Hebdo massacre at the beginning of 2015. And I’ve always been fascinated by “l’exception française”: the innate French character which makes them culturally unique. So I decided that I would be on the lookout for exceptions of any sort on this trip.
A good point of departure, when setting off in search of exceptions, is to start with the obvious stuff. It wasn’t long in coming. Even my admiration for the native ingenuity of the French left me unprepared for the breath-taking 28-hive teaching apiary, prominently positioned by a large playground and a clanking pétanque pitch in the Jardin du Luxembourg, the throbbing green heart at the centre of the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris.
It was also a little unusual to see a sign on the lawn next to the apiary : “Keep Off The Grass – Beware Of The Bees.” Not an interdiction which you often see in British parks. “Of course”, said Marie, “the moment the sun comes out, no-one pays any attention to it.”
The day was overcast, but the temperature was 14C and the bees were flying energetically. With just over an week to go before Christmas. Truly exceptional.
To put the Luxembourg Gardens in their historical context, Marie de’ Medici commissioned the building of a new palace, mimicking the style of the Pitti Palace in her native Florence, in 1611. This building now houses the French Senate. Even the listed Davioud Pavillion or “Miellerie”, now the beekeeper’s office and honey extraction centre, has its own, more recent, architectural panache.
No sop to the current tide of beekeeping popularity, the venerable Rucher Ecole has been located here since 1856, just by the rue de Fleuris entrance, sharing the strictly-planted gardens with 106 statues, including 20 white statues of the Queens of France. Something of an exception in Republican France. Here’s a written record of a Queen which has bred bees which only wanted to fill their supers with pollen – which is why she has been deposed and popped into a breeding nucleus Hive for observation.
And there are even a couple of ancient straw skeps on display in the Pavilion – which Marie de’ Medici herself would have recognised as beehives. Fast forward to mid-December 2015 and Marie Laure Legroux, who reigns benevolently over the teaching apiary, giving classes on Wednesdays, fitting in with her English Literature “prépas”, or “classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles”, which train undergraduate students for a tilt at a place in one of France’s exceptional “grandes écoles”. What else would you expect from the Left Bank of Paris ? Even its beekeepers are chic and intellectually avant-garde!
The stacks of supers give a clue to the expected honey harvest, although the yield from the 28 hives has halved in recent years, perhaps indicating a forage problem akin to London’s. Pulling on a French bee-jacket, I accompanied Marie to inspect a couple of problem hives. Marie stripped off the parcel tape which was blocking half the entrance of busy Hive 28, while we also checked to see whether Hive 19, the nucleus of the pollen-loving Queen, needed feeding with baker’s fondant (inverted sugar). It did.
There are 28 hives in the apiary. Bees were flying from all of them, to some extent, that afternoon – with the exception of a single defunct hive which was closed up. When the teaching apiary is active, some 40 students are split into groups and each group is hefted to a single hive to learn about its development over the beekeeping year.
And even the drinking fountain for the bees, in the middle of the apiary, references this quadrilateral shape. No chance of falling into the common error of underestimating the importance of a reliable water source for bees here.
A simple numbering system identifies the hives for humans and this system combines with different-coloured shapes painted onto each hive, to help any disorientated bees find their way back to the correct hive. Here is Number Four.
While I was delighted to see so many bees flying busily in the middle of December, the level of food consumption which this requires could herald problems in the Spring as over-wintered honey stores run low just as the build-up of brood creates a demand-surge. This is a worry. In London and Paris, bees will need exceptionally vigilant monitoring in early 2016 to avoid starvation.
Just 10 metres away from the apiary perimeter is a particular branch on a particular tree which is the place where any swarms from the apiary first alight, before deciding on their future home. Given the low, accessible bough, I suspect that a canny beekeeper has put some Queen pheromone to work, encouraging the bees to group in the anointed spot and allowing fellow beekeepers to retrieve the swarm from an easy and adjacent location.
It is always good to see a neat set of beekeeping tools. It was also fun to see that even stylish Parisian beekeepers can see the appeal of a nice little bee-shed.
This year’s honey harvest in the Jardin was saved by a late flowering of the bee-bee tree (Euodia or Tetradium daniellii), which boosted yields. For that reason, there is a lot of unused liquid bee-feed, stacked in the bee-kiosk, awaiting 2016.
Just as in London, the lime flow failed in Paris this year, while the acacia and chestnut trees were dutiful, but unexceptional. It is worth noting that the rigid traditionalism of the formal layout of the Jardin du Luxembourg means that pleas from beekeepers for more pollinator-friendly forage plantings have fallen on deaf ears so far.
The honey is sold at a knock-down price of €9/500g jar to local residents and is strictly rationed to one per family when it comes up for sale on the occasion of the Luxembourg Garden’s Fete du miel (26th-27th September 2015). It is said that emotions run high for this delicious, artisanal honey.
It was a pleasure to meet (left to right) Dominique Castel, Patrick Roux, Jean-Michel Minart, Stephane Bredthauer and, of course, Marie Laure Legroux, the cheerful, volunteer beekeepers of the Jardin. Then Marie handed over the keys to her fellow beekeepers of the Société Centrale de l’Apiculture and we went to off to lunch at Aux Prés in rue du Dragon. (Also quite superlative, by the way!)
I was privileged to visit such an exceptional beekeeping location and to have received an exceptionally warm welcome from the beekeepers. So, to preserve the memory of that day, I thought that I should conclude with an exceptional infra-red video of bees flying from Hive 28 in the Jardin du Luxembourg that afternoon.
Just as travel broadens the mind, visiting other people’s apiaries expands one’s own beekeeping sensibilities. The equipment, the colours, textures and shapes are different. The language of beekeeping transcends these local quirks. Yes, it has regional variations, accents and argots, but the natural rhythm of bee biology dictates our beekeeping activities.
I’m delighted to report with enthusiasm that “l’exception française” is alive and well in Paris, especially in the southwest corner of le Jardin du Luxembourg. Boum!