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Backstory: Paris is buzzing

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

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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.

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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."