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Backstory: Paris is buzzing

Honeybees are busy phantoms of the opera, balconies, rooftops, and even a bank headquarters.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 2005


High on its ornate marble pillared facade, the Paris Opera House emblazons in gilded script the building's raison d'être: CHOREOGRAPHIE and POESIE LYRIQUE.

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It makes no mention, though, of another art less commonly associated with arias and arpeggios, to which the Opera Garnier nevertheless plays host: apiculture.

In the heart of Paris, on a roof overlooking the Galeries Lafayette department store, Jean Paucton cares for five hives of honeybees. And he is by no means alone. Dotted around the French capital, he guesses, are more than two dozen fellow apiarists tending bees on balconies, in parks and gardens, and behind convent walls.

When you think Paris, chances are you don't think bees. When you do, you wonder what on earth the honey Parisian bees produce might taste like: even a perfunctory sniff of the exhaust-laden air or a glance at a Parisian sidewalk raises possibilities best left unexplored. But of course, sidewalks aren't where bees browse. And Paris turns out to grow a wider range of plants than any comparably sized piece of countryside.

It was 25 years ago that Mr. Paucton got the idea of keeping bees on the roof of the Opera, where he worked in props, after talking to a member of the in-house fire brigade who was raising fish in the basement (don't ask ...).

"I had bought a hive of bees and was keeping it in my apartment until I could get to my place in the country," he recalls. "But I couldn't find time to go there. I came up here and all I could see was roofs.... I wondered where the bees would gather pollen," he says, surveying the cityscape from his aerie. "But I had to put my hive somewhere."

A week later he found his hive was full of honey. The bees had been hard at work on the Champs Elysées, he realized, or in the presidential palace gardens, or in planters on local balconies.

"The urban biotope is completely artificial, but a lot more varied than in the countryside," explains Jean-Jacques Schakmundès, who sells apiarists' paraphernalia, royal jelly, pollen, and honey at his shop in central Paris. "There are dozens of different species, and there is something in flower from April to October."

Behind the counter in his shop, which smells of spices, wax and sweetness, Mr. Schakmundès ticks off other advantages of city life for the normally bucolic bee. There are no poisonous pesticides or insecticides, unlike the heavily sprayed French farmland. And the urban temperature is a few degrees warmer, so bees stay out longer.

This year they've had an especially long season: a balmy Indian summer kept Parisian bees buzzing into November and, even now, a few hardier speci-mens still venture out when the sun shines.

"It's good to be an urban bee," concludes Schakmundès.

The good life leads to impressive harvests: Paucton gets 100 kilos of honey per hive each year, about five times what rural beekeepers can expect. He still can't meet demand for his "Opera Honey," a pale golden, intensely floral honey that he sells in the Opera foyer and at Fauchon's, the French capital's most exclusive épicier, for about 10 times the price of standard honey.

And no, his honey is not polluted, he insists. Government tests of Parisian honey have found fewer traces of lead or other dangerous substances than in some rural honeys, well below permitted levels, Paucton and his fellow apiarists point out.