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The past couple of weekends my better half and I have purchased local honey for the third summer in a row.  The local beekeeper’s honeybees visit our garden every year, nosing about in our lavender, thyme, chive, ceanothus and other flowering plants.  In 2009, they swarmed our ceanothus tree during the month of May.  Last year, they feasted on our lavender — we didn’t get a look in!  We can hardly wait to taste the fruits of their labours, as it were!

Programmes about English honey often include London.  You might think our capital city an unusual spot for bees, but in blind tastings, London honey invariably beats its country cousins for variety of flowers and flavours.

And London is not the only metropolis with its own, distinctive honey. Sometime in Spring 2010, France magazine featured an article about the urban beekeepers in Paris.  In ‘Creating a Buzz’, journalist Carol Drinkwater wrote about three of them.  Jean Paucton, 76, worked as a props man for the Paris Opera before he turned to beekeeping. He visits his hives once a week.  He says that very few of his  colonies die.  Cities, unlike rural locations, use fewer pesticides and are also warmer in winter.  Paucton, known as ‘the most famous beekeeper in the world’, sells his Paris Opera House Honey for an eye-watering €100 a pot. (The local honey I buy costs £5 a pot.) The grand food emporium, Fauchon, also sells it.

On the Champs Elysées former economics consultant Nicholas Géant left his profession to devote his energies full-time to his bees. What started as a hobby for him many years ago is now his raison d’être.  He has 200 hives, not only along one of the world’s most famous avenues, but elsewhere in Paris, including La Défense.  He is working with Guerlain to develop honey and propolis-based skincare creams.

However, there is a third notable beekeeper in the city, just off the Champs Elysées in the Avenue de la Grande Armée.  The Revd Louis Pernot, 51, is a Calvinist pastor at l’Eglise Reformée de l’Etoile, near the Arc de Triomphe.  Pastor Pernot keeps Buckfast bees, a crossbreed created in 1898 by Karl Kerhle, a German monk who lived and worked at Buckfast Abbey in Devon (England).  The Buckfast has a gentle temperament, which makes it especially suitable for humans in an urban environment.

Pastor Pernot, who has been at l’Eglise Reformée de l’Etoile for over 20 years, keeps bees at the church on the upper level of the presbytery.  He gives pots of honey to neighbours as a way of thanking them for their patience and tolerance of his hobby.  Pernot normally sells his honey for €20 – €30 a kilo, the proceeds of which go to his church.

Pernot’s wife and three sons live happily amongst the bees. This photo of him, which appeared in France magazine and The Honey Gatherers (more Parisian beekeepers here), shows the close proximity of the church and the presbytery to the bees:

Carol Drinkwater writes:

This tall, lean pastor with the gait of a tennis player says that keeping bees in a city is a different prospect to a country apiary, as they need more attention. For example, Monsieur le Pasteur replaces the colony’s queen every two years so that there is no risk of swarming. A queen and brood quitting the hive and flying in a swarm about the city in search of a new dwelling place might unsettle the neighbourhood. Better to avert any such possibility …

Bees in the city are never hungry. Lime and chestnuts bloom in abundance. Most trees in the parks or lining the avenues are their principal fodder and this priest’s apiary is but a short flight from the Bois de Boulogne. The bees could gorge themselves 12 months a year if they wished. City bees have a longer foraging span. They go into their hives for winter in early November and are out and about again by the second week of March. Consequently, they produce more honey.

Pastor Pernot also keeps bees at his holiday home in Savoie (Savoy), a beautiful region in eastern France, well known not only for its ski resorts but also for its livestock and cheese.  However, he finds that his Savoie bees produce only 40% of what his Parisian bees do.

But beekeeping is about more than honey for Pernot.  He tells Carol Drinkwater:

“In the Bible, the Promised Land is the land of milk and honey,” he reminds me as I depart. “Living in a city can be dehumanising. The bees keep me in touch with the seasons. School- children come here to learn the social habits of these arthropods. It is so important to encourage youngsters in the ways of nature.”

Yet, he cautions against a mass move towards beekeeping as a hobby in town:

Hive numbers need to be limited so that the city inhabitants are not overrun and the trees are not foraged intensively. In any case, not everyone is suited to the task.

It would seem that beekeeping requires a calm, patient personality.  One must also be able to check on them regularly in an unhurried manner.  Various courses, some given by volunteers, take place in Paris, London and elsewhere.  Those interested in working with bees might begin by taking one of these courses and then helping a local beekeeper, many of whom would no doubt appreciate an extra pair of hands.  Our local man, who also has his own business in an unrelated field, has been spending all his spare time preparing the honey and putting it into jars.  Right now, he’s pretty tired.

We’ll come back to Pastor Pernot starting tomorrow with a few of his sermons, which I’ll translate from French for you.

In the meantime, let us thank God for His gift of these hard working arthropods.  Without them, we’d go hungry.  Many plants worldwide are dependent upon the bee, to such an extent that, in the United States, hives are regularly transported around the country — particularly to California — to pollinate plants.

Tomorrow: Pastor Pernot on body, soul and spirit

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