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December 9, 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 2:12pm

Concrete Honey in the city of love – can bees provide the answer to urban sustainability?

By Kerry Flint

One of Paris’s sweetest and most enduring love stories is between the city and its bees. When you think of Paris you usually picture wine, cheese or the equally pungent Metro, but rarely do we associate la Tour Eiffel with those buzzy little honey makers we call bees. All this will soon change, because the French capital is home to a growing number of beehives and is fast becoming the capital of urban beekeeping.

There is a growing trend for cities across Europe and America to put hives on their rooftops. As people wander around the stunning Parisian streets they are usually unaware of the buzz that is going on above them; the iconic zinc-coated rooftops are increasingly “apiculture-friendly”, with hives on the top of Opera Garnier, Notre Dame, Le Bon Marche and La Grande Epicerie, Grand Palais, and the Assemblée Nationale.

There are even hives on the top of a sky-scraper in Paris’s hectic business district, and the French Communist Party set up a handful of hives on the roof of its imposing 1970s-era headquarters in Colonel Fabien. This sparked a debate around the exploitation of bees.

Just the bee-siness 

At the Tour d’Argent, a Left Bank restaurant, diners could enjoy “roast duckling with spices and honey from our roof” as they gazed across at Cathedral of Notre Dame. It has also become du jour for high-class hotels to make their own honey. The Mandarin-Oriental and Eiffel Park Hotels boast their own sweet supplies, selling their honey at a steep price of around €15 for 150g. Which is quite amusing when you bear in mind that honey is basically bee vomit.

The French national rail operator SNCF installed eight hives on the rooftop of Austerlitz station two years ago. Situated on the Left Bank of the Seine, the station bees get propolis from the Jardin des Plantes (France’s main botanical garden) next door and in return provide enough honey for 2,000 pots a year, given out to passengers passing through the station. 

Bet the bees love it here. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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Urban beekeeping may be a growing trend but it is definitely not a new thing in Paris, a city famed for being at the forefront of fashions. Many cities, including New York, banned urban beekeeping until recently but Paris has long had a passion for bees, which were cultivated in the city as far back as 1856 in the Luxembourg Garden, where there is still a beekeeping school.

A century ago, there were more than 1,000 hives in the city, but they almost totally disappeared in the decades after the Second World War. Among the first of the new generation was the hives installed 15 years ago on the roof of the Paris Opera, producing little jars of honey sold at about €14.50 – a high price to, ahem, hit the high notes.

Literally the only close-up of a bee in the Luxembourg Garden. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The renewed interest in apiaries has been ignited in part by an increase in public awareness of threats to the bee population. Like other countries in Europe and the Americas, France – Europe’s biggest agriculture producer – has seen a worrying decline in bee numbers in recent years. Around 100,000 French hives have been lost since 1995, and the amount of honey produced has fallen from 32,000 tonnes to 20,000. The real sting is that bee mortality rates are three times what is considered normal.

From Paris To Bee-lin

Paris now boasts more than 400 hives, and the number is growing steadily: it seems the bees have become enamoured with the city of love. This is because the city offers an abundance of greenery and bee-friendly environments. Paris is a city obsessed with beauty and many of its residents fill their balconies with a varied array of flowers all year round. Parisian streets are also famously lined with non-native Sophora trees, which start to blossom later than August, when most rural pollination has ended. The success of the city bees provokes sorely needed hope for their rural cousins – agriculture, an industry valued globally at €153bn, relies on pollination by bees.

Man relaxes in Luxembourg Gardens contemplating global agriculture. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It is a strange paradox that bees are often faring better in cities such as Paris than in rural areas. For the past 10 years the French capital has been officially a pesticide-free zone, and the warmth of the city environment also promotes early breeding. And things are looking up for the Parisian bees. The city government wants to have  one square kilometre of green roofs, pavements and walls, with a third of that space dedicated to the production of fruits and vegetables.

In 2005 the Paris-based National Apiculture Association ran a huge campaign to encourage beekeeping in cities – the largest such project in the world – and amateur hives have popped up around the city ever since. For Parisians interested in setting up hives the rules are relatively simple – a novel notion in a city where red tape can be as long as a piece of string. The guidelines simply state that hives must be registered with the veterinary authority and be more than 25 metres from a school or hospital – a common-sense approach to promote sensible bee-haviour (sorry not sorry).

Concrete flowerbeds

Beekeeping is certainly capturing imaginations. Olivier Darné is a designer and beekeeper who reintroduces bees to cities through urban hives, producing what the media have dubbed as Miel de Béton (Concrete Honey). He is a known as a graphiculteur, a very cool job title that is a contraction of the French words graphiste (graphic designer) and apiculteur (beekeeper). For more than ten years, he has been leading a project to “pollenate the city” with a collective of mixed-media artists. With names like Concrete Honey and the Japanese market exploding, don’t be surprised to see the likes of Kanye rapping about honey extraction.

Not the moment to realise you forgot to zip up your fly. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Bees and other pollinating insects play an essential role in our lives – one third of all our food depends on their pollination.

As more and more people take to the iconic zinc-covered rooftops of Paris to keep bees amidst the cityscape, it seems Parisians’ sweet tooth will stand out as an example – a small but positive step toward a more sustainable coexistence in urban environments.

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