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Paris rooftops abuzz with beekeeping

On storied rooftops and public gardens in the urban jungle of Paris, the bee business is thriving.

By Rachel KurowskiAssociated Press Writer / September 29, 2009

Beekeeper Nicolas Geant takes care of bees on top of the Grand Palais museum in Paris. Urban beekeeping has caught on in the city.

Francois Mori/AP

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PARIS

In the romantic city of lights, the bees are downright busy.

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Common sense says it is better to keep hives of stinging insects in the countryside, away from city centers packed with people. Yet on storied rooftops and public gardens in the urban jungle of Paris, the bee business is thriving.

Bees are disappearing from fields across France and elsewhere in the world, victims of a slow decline in number because of loss of habitat compounded by a recent and mysterious catastrophe variously blamed on disease, parasites and pesticides.

But in the heart of the French capital, Nicolas Geant is preparing to sell off his honey. It comes from hives on the edges of the soaring glass roof of the Grand Palais exhibition hall, just off the Champs-Elysees.

"Paris has many balconies, parks and avenues full of trees and little flowers that attract many bees for pollination," says Mr. Geant, who has 25 years of experience under his belt.

The Grand Palais beehives went up in May. They also sit in the Luxembourg Gardens, on the gilded dome of the 19th Century Palais Garnier and the roof of the ultramodern Opera Bastille.

"In Paris, each beehive produces a minimum of 50 to 60 kilograms (110 to 130 pounds) of honey per harvest, and the death rate of the colonies is 3 to 5 percent," says Henri Clement, president of the National Union of French Beekeepers.

"But in the countryside, one beehive only gives you 10 to 20 kilograms (about 20 to 40 pounds) of honey, and the death rate is 30 to 40 percent. It is a sign of alarm."

The Luxembourg Gardens' hives alone produce more than half a ton of honey per harvest. It is sold to the public during the last weekend in September, and the income funds beekeeping classes and the facilities.

Alain Sandmeyer, a volunteer instructor at the gardens, says trees and shrubbery have grown sparser in rural areas, attracting fewer bees. Also, he says, rural bees are dying off from pesticides and fertilizers. In Paris, on the other hand, pesticides are forbidden in all parks and gardens.

Urban beekeeping isn't just a Paris thing. Berlin, London, Tokyo, and Washington, D.C., are among beekeeping cities. New York City on the other hand, lists bees as "venomous insects," and beekeeping is punishable by a $2,000 fine.

Parisian Erin Langenburg, a student, says the bees don't bother her when she's in Parisian parks, but they do tend to migrate to outdoor restaurants. "There seem to be a lot of bees when I'm eating outside on a terrace and they annoy me, especially when they get in my drinks," she says. "I am kind of scared of getting stung by one."

For many years bee experts worried about an aging population of beekeepers, but a new young generation has suddenly taken on the hobby, says May Berenbaum, head of the entomology department at the University of Illinois.

"There's definitely been an incredibly heartening increase in interest," Ms. Berenbaum says.