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Chestnuts in bloom, tables abuzz with bees

The insects are disappearing from the French countryside. But in

September 27, 2009|Rachel Kurowski | Kurowski writes for the Associated Press.

PARIS — In the romantic City of Light, the bees are downright busy.

Common sense says it's better to keep hives of stinging insects in the countryside, away from city centers packed with people. Yet on storied rooftops and in 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 loss of habitat as well as a mysterious factor variously attributed to disease, parasites and pesticides. The most recent research points to a combination of interacting diseases for the latest collapses of colonies.

But in the heart of the French capital, Nicolas Geant is preparing to sell his honey. It comes from hives at 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," said Geant, who has 25 years' experience under his belt.

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

"In Paris, each beehive produces a minimum of 50 to 60 kilograms [about 110 to 130 pounds] of honey per harvest, and the death rate of the colonies is 3% to 5%," said 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%. It is a sign of alarm."

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

Alain Sandmeyer, 63, a volunteer instructor at the gardens, said trees and shrubbery have grown sparser in rural areas, attracting fewer bees. Also, he said, rural bees are dying off from pesticides and fertilizers. In Paris, 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 the cities that have embraced the practice. New York, on the other hand, lists bees as "venomous insects," and beekeeping is punishable by a $2,000 fine.

Erin Langenburg, 24, a student, said the bees don't bother her when she's in Paris' parks, but she noted that 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 said. "I am kind of scared of getting stung by one."

For many years, bee experts worried about an aging population of beekeepers, but young people have suddenly taken up the hobby, said May Berenbaum, head of the entomology department at the University of Illinois.

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

Domesticated bee populations worldwide have dropped significantly since the late 1940s. The causes have been mostly loss of habitat, disease, fungi and invading parasites, a 2007 study by the National Academy of Sciences found.

It is estimated that half the honeybee population has disappeared in the U.S. and Britain, according to an April report by the International Bee Research Assn.

And lately the world has been hit by a new crisis: colony collapse disorder. In 2007-08, it caused the loss of 35% of U.S. bees.

Wild bee populations have also plunged. Last year, 30% of Europe's 13.6 million hives died, according to statistics from Apimondia, an international beekeeping body.

Attendees of a conference held this month in Montpellier, France, were told that Ireland saw a 53% drop in bees in 2006, Slovenia lost 30% to 35% last year, and Italy lost 37%.

It's not just about the honey. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates a third of our diet comes from plants pollinated by insects, primarily bees. The French beekeepers union estimates that 65% of agricultural plants worldwide are at risk of not being pollinated. The U.S. has had to import huge numbers of bees from Australia to pollinate apple orchards and berry fields.

At the Luxembourg Gardens, beekeeping dates back to 1856. Today, for about $230, Parisians can spend several months learning about and participating in beekeeping and honey extraction.

Volunteer instructor Dominique Castel, 64, has been devoting most of his free time to beekeeping at the gardens since retiring from his aviation industry job 12 years ago.

Asked whether he gets stung often, he shrugged and said, "You get used to it."

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Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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