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

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.

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.

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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.

Each flower produces nectar for only a few hours, to attract pollinating insects, and that nectar lies deep inside the flower, protecting it from smog, the beekeepers say, reassuringly.

But urban apiculturists don't have things all their own way. For one thing, they have neighbors.

"You have to make absolutely sure that you are not bothering anybody," says Michèle Bonnefond, who together with her partner Armand Malvezin keeps 10 hives on their fourth floor apartment balcony. Not to mention the transparent Plexiglass display hive in their kitchen.

"If a housewife puts her laundry out to dry underneath a beehive she has to do her washing again," Ms. Bonnefond points out delicately. "And not everybody likes having thousands of bees flying around outside their window."

Mr. Malvezin's balcony is overlooked by serried ranks of 30-story high-rise apartment blocks, but nobody opposite lives within 30 feet of the hives. Nor are there any balconies or windows beneath the hives. So the hives are legally correct, says Malvezin. "I have neighbors who don't even know we keep bees up here."

Others have found out - in dramatic fashion.

"The biggest problem for a sensitive and responsible Paris apiarist is swarms," acknowledges Malvezin. Sometimes he can anticipate the decision by 30,000 bees to find another home and take measures to dissuade them, sometimes he can't. Which is why Paulette Mornet, who lives in a small house next door, woke up one May morning a few years ago to find an enormous swarm clinging in a giant ball to a tree just outside her window. Malvezin came immediately when she phoned. But as he reached from her roof to recover the swarm, he fell and broke his shoulder.

"Nowadays when a swarm arrives I am worried, but not about the bees," says Ms. Mornet. "I know they are not aggressive when they swarm. But I'm worried about Mr. Malvezin falling off the roof ..."

Other Parisians who find themselves living next to beehives are not so tolerant, complains Schakemundès. "When neighbors see a hive they get stung, and when they don't see a hive they don't get stung," he shrugs. "That's how neighbors are."

Nor are bees any respecters of person. Paucton remembers the call from the "Société Général," one of France's biggest banks. The CEO's conference room was buzzing. One of his hives had swarmed, he realized, and he had to smoke the trespassers out of the bank's chimney. Only when a swarm goes into attack mode are bees dangerous, Malvezin points out (and when that happened in the Luxembourg Gardens they had to close the whole park). Still, it's a challenge to start keeping bees, he says, because "you have to master your fear."

Beekeeping, he adds, has taught him a lot. "I was a bit hot-tempered, but I've learned respect and calm and patience," he says. "To start with, I just wanted to show I could do the same thing as friends of mine were doing. It could have been raising elephants, for all the interest I had in bees."

"Ah," interjects Bonnefond. "But you couldn't have kept 10,000 elephants in your kitchen."

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