A buzz at the opEra

Michel Arseneault finds a hive of apian activity on the rooftops of Paris
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Bees are found from the Arctic to the Equator, but when it comes to location, there is one multiple-storey, movable-frame beehive without peer. It sits on the roof of the Paris Opera, within sight of the Seine, the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame cathedral.

The hive belongs to Jean Paucton, who works backstage at the Opera-Bastille, where he is in charge of set furniture. A decade ago, he completed a beginner's course in apiculture at the Jardin du Luxembourg, the park behind France's Senate building, whereParisians have been able to study beekeeping for the past 137 years.

Paucton then started looking for a good spot for his first hive. Home was no good; he lived in central Paris and did not even have a backyard. Nor did he have a place in the country where he could keep bees. "So,'' he says, ``I put it somewhere where there was some fresh air and where I could keep an eye on it." Not to mention lots of fresh aria.

Having installed his first swarm on the Opera rooftop, he wondered if the workers - sexually undeveloped females - would manage to find nectar and pollen in the middle of a densely populated city. "When I returned a week later, the hive was already dripping with honey," says Paucton.

At first, Paucton's boss wasn't sure he approved. But how could a music lover say no? After all, had not the Opera declared its interest in insects by staging Puccini's Butterfly and Rimsky-Korsakov's Bumblebee? Then Paucton suggested his bees' honey could be sold at the Opera's souvenir shop. The deal was done.

In his role as farmer of the Opera, Paucton climbs to the roof three times a week. Once there, he puts on his beekeeper's veil and lights up a smoker to control his charges. "The smoker is to the beekeeper what the whip is to the lion tamer," he explains.

At first glance, central Paris is not exactly bee country. But from a bee's eye-view, it's, well, a honey pot. Worker bees based at the Opera can gather nectar and pollen in a three-kilometre radius that includes the 47 hectares of the Pere-Lachaise cemetery. They scour tree-lined avenues and flower-lined balconies for the brighter blossoms (researchers say yellow, blue and ultraviolet trigger a strong response in their eyes). Flowers also emit an odour made up of tens or even hundreds of molecular compounds that are picked up by the honeybees, even in the polluted Parisian air.

The bees from the Opera gather nectar from such a variety of blossoms that their honey is richer-tasting than sunflower or canola honey, with a bouquet reminiscent of mint and lemon. There are those, however, who dislike its strong and somewhat tangy taste. "Some people hate it," says Paucton. "They say it tastes of bubble-gum."

In the early autumn, at the height of the bee-keeping season, Paucton looks after 150,000 bees in three hives. One is atop the Opera-Bastille, the opera house inaugurated in 1989 for the bicentennial of the French Revolution; two are on the roof of the old Opera-Garnier, just metres away from the Chagall mural on the dome's interior.

Paucton's honey operation is now in its tenth season. It has been a smooth, mellifluous operation, except for the time that a swarm of Apis mellifera decided to leave its rooftop colony for a new location: the main entrance to the Opera. Paucton's colleagues were panic-stricken when it appeared that his runaway bees were now in a position to demand front-row seats. Using his smoker, Paucton simply diverted the queen toward a box; the other bees followed the monarch's pheromone (a five-component blend ofacids and aromatics produced in her mandibular glands) to a new home of his choosing.

Paris beekepers say city bees are two to three times more productive than their country cousins. City bees do not have to fear their most common predators: skunks, bears and mice. Unlike bees who live in agricultural areas, they are not affected by insecticides. The most important factor, however, is the weather.

Large cities tend to be two or three degrees warmer than outlying areas. This means that flowers in the city bloom earlier in the year, and that bees, which only go to work when the outside temperature is above eight degrees centigrade, spend more time out of the hive. "They can go to work earlier in the morning and return later at night," says Andre Lemaire, a retired fireman who teaches beekeeping at the Jardin du Luxembourg.

Lemaire fears that the French countryside will one day have to "import" its bees from the city. In some rural areas the modernisation of agriculture is having an adverse effect on bees. In western France - especially Normandy and Britanny - cattle are often fed fermented grass instead of hay because the micro-organism-rich fodder causes them to produce more milk. But this practice, which gained popularity in the Seventies and Eighties, has made life more difficult for bees.

Moreover, in rural areas, deciduous trees are often replaced by faster-growing conifers, not all of which can host the plant-sucking insects that produce the honeydew which bees turn into honey.

Already, for instance, France has Gatinais, a sweet white honey made from white clover in a farming area south of Paris. The clover, alas, has virtually vanished from the region. "Today, that honey has to be imported from Canada," says Lemaire.

Paucton's honey sells at Fauchon, a renowned fine-food store (which so epitomises the French Establishment that it was once attacked by Maoists). A 125-gram jar of Paris Opera honey will set you back £7. That might seem to be a lot - but what other honeyso literally puts the culture back in apiculture?

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