In central France, between the rivers Cher and Loire, lies an expanse of forest concealing hundreds of tiny lakes, a world where you can still wander among pine and chestnut trees without emerging for hours. This is Sologne, north of the famed Loire Valley winegrowing region; here, the specialty isn’t wine, but honey.
Pierre Aucante, a photographer, a proud native of Sologne, and a champion for local bees, lives in the heart of this forest on what’s known as a lieu dit, a road so small and secluded it doesn’t have numbered addresses, just local chestnut trees beckoning you down a sandy path to the wooden house at the end. The forest buzzes here – so says Pierre, and I can attest to this fact: it is here that he keeps around 30 hives of bees at any given time, producing 300 kilos of honey a year.
Pierre stumbled upon beekeeping and honey making by chance, when he first built his house here in the mid-1970s. There was already a handful of hives on the land, he recalls; in what sounds like the beginning of a fable, an old man appeared twice a year to care for them. It was this image of fairly autonomous bees that stayed with Pierre, and when the man didn’t return for five years in a row, Pierre began, slowly, to care for the bees himself.
Then, one day, the old man reappeared. “He had an old truck that was as rundown as he was,” Pierre says. “He was walking with two canes, and he had potato sacks instead of gloves and a bit of sack on his head, and he was making smoke with newspaper. Given his state, he could barely walk, but here he was, coming to harvest the honey anyway, five years later.”
The old man happily sold the hives to Pierre when he offered to buy them. “I knew them,” Pierre says of the bees. “We knew each other. So that’s how I started having hives.”
Today, Pierre is a veritable countryside jack-of-all-trades, cultivating saffron, growing chestnut trees, and logging, not to mention continuing his journalistic and photographic endeavors. But beekeeping, he says, offers something that his other jobs do not.
“I’ve noticed a certain calming quality with bees,” he says. “Of course, you shouldn’t go out there when you’re too upset, you need to calm down a bit first, but you’re in their world.” This, Pierre says, is key: the beekeeper is not the boss of his bees; it’s actually quite the opposite. “Of course, you can offer them solutions, but you can’t impose anything on them,” he says. “At the end of the day, you start to think a little bit ‘bee.’”
This image of low-maintenance bees is one that Pierre’s son, Nils, remembers well. Born and raised in Sologne, Nils’s childhood memories have the garden’s incessant buzzing as a soundtrack. The bees were omnipresent. His mother swore by a spoonful of pollen every morning with breakfast, and Nils’s early complaints of tooth pain were remedied by propolis, also known as bee glue, which Pierre gave his son to chew.
As a teenager, however, Nils decided that the rural lifestyle of beekeeping wasn’t for him. He traveled south to star-studded Cannes to attend journalism school, and he soon adopted the quasi-nomadic lifestyle of a documentary journalist, a lifestyle that has nonetheless brought him home to a project in his own backyard.
Traveling the world on different assignments, Nils found himself, much to his own surprise, drawn to beekeepers. Driving through rural Honduras, he noticed, on occasion, families selling a few buckets of honey on the roadside. He started to ask himself, and then the beekeepers, about their methods. How did they keep their hives up in the mountains? How did they learn the secrets of the trade?
He couldn’t help but grow interested in their practices, which were new to him but ancient in Central America. In Honduras, he discovered, beekeeping methods are passed through generations, so even children are fearless when it comes to caring for them. “You know in Europe and the U.S., we’re kind of afraid of insects,” he says. “That’s not the case at all in these families, with these really young kids keeping bees, and they love to do it.”
This generational tradition in other countries has led to a great deal of rural medicinal lore regarding honey and propolis, echoing Nils’s own childhood experiences. In Haiti, he says, people use honey and its byproducts as ointment for a cut, as an aphrodisiac, or as a remedy for tooth pain, just like Nils’s father did.
“They eat a lot of propolis or just chew it because they know it’s good for their teeth,” he says. “There are really local stories in Haiti, and everyone believes them. That must come from somewhere.” By asking questions and getting to know beekeepers, not only in Honduras, but in the United States, in Haiti, and in his native France, Nils discovered not only what makes them different from his father, but also what traverses continents, including one overarching problem he recognizes the world over.
“When I was a kid, it was really easy,” he recalls. “My dad would just put his beehive somewhere where there were some flowers around, and he wouldn’t take care of them for a few months, and then just go harvest the honey. And the more I grew up, the more I saw all the time and effort that he put into it. It got more and more complicated because of a lot of different factors.”
One of the main factors is climate change. It’s this problem that Nils is seeking to explore with beekeepers around the world, including his father. Last year, Nils got the green light to make a documentary film exploring the relationship between rapidly dying bees and climate change. The documentary is produced by several groups, including the Tzu Chi Foundation, a Buddhist organization based in Taiwan. The premiere screening is set to take place during Climate Week in New York, which will be held September 21-28, 2015.
In order to make the film, Nils interviewed beekeepers around the world, recording their stories, their methods, and their thoughts on how the changing climate affects the world of bees. To do that, one needs to suit up, so to speak, and I came to Pierre’s backyard in Sologne assuming I’d do just that. I immediately find out I’ve neglected one important bit of information; according to Pierre, bees hate black, and I am dressed in black from head to toe. Pierre lends me a white suit, and we set out to explore the forest he’s planted with bees in mind: with flowering trees, including acacia and chestnut, the two local specialties.
Pierre moves methodically through the area, checking in on some hives and leaving others to buzz in peace. One hive is of special interest; it contains Pierre’s new pet project, the black bee of Sologne. We note their darker color, their calmer and quieter countenance. After barely an hour, I’ve already started noticing bee personalities; thinking ‘bee’ may be contagious, I think.
These bees, like the chestnut trees that Pierre so loves, and like Pierre himself, are natives of this region, but due to genetic pollution, they’re quickly disappearing. It’s up to local beekeepers to make sure they aren’t wiped out forever.
“The black bee isn’t my baby,” Pierre says. Other beekeepers in nearby Orleans and throughout the Loire Valley started an association to protect them, and after learning about their project, Pierre and a few friends created a small sister group in Sologne.
“We noticed that the black bee of the Val de Loire and the black bee of Sologne were cousins, but they weren’t the same,” he says. Micro-ecosystems have evolved, and the black bee has always been able to change to suit its surroundings. “It’s not that the bee is black that’s the question; it’s that it’s a bee that’s adapted,” he says.
But the black bee is not adapting anymore, or at least, not enough to keep up with a changing climate, a changing world. A century ago, beekeepers used a completely different method, raising hives in wicker baskets every spring and exterminating them each winter to harvest every last drop of honey. While Pierre and many of his friends allow their bees to prepare for hibernation in the fall, keeping them alive through the winter, many modern amateur beekeepers use a variation on this older method.
“You buy fertilized queens, you weigh out a kilo and a half of bees, you put everything together in a box,” he explains. “At the end of the season, you exterminate it all and harvest everything there is.” The difference, he says, is that a century ago, after the bees were exterminated and the spring thaw had arrived, the wicker baskets were brought back out, and they filled up all on their own, something that doesn’t happen anymore. “What’s the difference?” he says. “There are two: pesticides and bee varieties. So there you go.”
Avoiding the former has posed a big problem for Pierre, in particular last year. He sourced a organic treatment for varroosis, a disease caused by an external parasitic mite common to honeybees, from a trusted and recommended distributor, but the treatment backfired and ended up killing a large number of the black bees he was raising. But the latter problem, that of varieties within the species, is an even more crucial one when it comes to the protection of the local black bee which, in large part due to genetic pollution, is disappearing from its natural habitat.
“You can’t say that black bees are the panacea, but the interesting thing is to have a trace, to conserve them, because they come from here,” Pierre says. It’s for this reason that he got involved with the preservation project.
As the association was made up of local expert beekeepers, the most important question was not so much how to preserve the black bees, but rather where. Bees live and reproduce within a three-kilometer area; to keep the genetic line pure, the black bee would have to be the only bee reproducing within a range of 5,000 hectares. “So, for example, Paris is 5,000 hectares,” Pierre explains. “The surface of Paris.”
The answer lay in the very terroir of the Loire that has been home to these bees for so long: one of France’s largest forests, the former royal hunting ground of Chambord, which shares its name – and a space – with one of the most-visited Loire Valley chateaux. The beekeepers struck an agreement with the chateau, lending their expertise, experience and materials to set up a production hive in the forest, complete with honey for the chateau’s gift shop, in exchange for a convention of five years, during which the bees would be in a protected area far from the forest walls, where they could reproduce and conserve their genetic line in peace. Once the agreement was signed, the beekeepers set out to find the black bees their new home.
“You need water, and you need willows, and you need hazels, and you need heather, and you need acacia, and you need chestnut… you need a whole panoply of plants,” Pierre says. “So we found the spot. And now, all that’s missing is the bees.”
For this, Mother Nature needs a bit of help. Luckily, one of the responsibilities of a rural beekeeper is to respond to calls from citizens about bees in places where they shouldn’t be: chimneys, abandoned sheds, slides at the playground. Pierre says that this is one of the key ways he has uncovered hives of black bees.
The other way is trapping, a task Pierre compares to going fishing. “If you want to know if there are bees in an area, you just stick a little saucer of honey there,” he says. “You come back around noon two days later, and you’ll see what the bees look like.”
If he finds black bees, he sets a trap and brings them home to care for them. It’s quite a lot of work for a species that adapted independent changes in the region for millions of years, but Pierre says it’s well worth the effort. “They might not be adapted for the future that’s coming,” Pierre says.
Pierre is not the only one to anticipate what comes next for the bees. Nils has interviewed lifelong beekeepers, like 82-year-old Haitian Admirable Wilson, who has been keeping bees his whole life by hollowing out palm trees and extracting the honey, bare-handed, with a long knife. “That was probably the most interesting thing I filmed [for] this documentary, because you feel like you’re time-traveling,” says Nils.
But these time-honored traditions, like those in his hometown, are being threatened. In Haiti, a six-month drought has forced the lifelong beekeeper to start feeding his bees, a technique Pierre warns against.
“The aim of the game isn’t to make bees with sugar,” he says. “Syrup is a palliative when there’s a problem.” Still, he admits, when you have to feed your bees, you do, and to keep his bees from dying, Admirable Wilson is forced to feed them.
“He’s telling me, ‘It hasn’t rained for six months. It might seem crazy, but this is one of the first years that we’ve seen something like this,’” Nils says. “Of course, he’s not a scientist, he can’t say, ‘This is climate change for sure,’ but a man experiencing this extreme climate, this extreme weather, can tell me, ‘My life is really my bees, and now my bees are dying.’”
Of course, Nils’s journalistic spirit teaches him not to take everything at face value. “Farmers will always tell you, ‘I’ve never seen a year like this year,’” he says. “My grandfather was a farmer, and he would tell me that too.” So Nils met with scientists, including some from NASA conducting research on exactly this question, and found they’re coming to the same conclusions: bees can’t tolerate the droughts in Haiti or the effects of slowly rising temperatures in the Loire region, including the desynchronization of the lifespans of local plants and the bees themselves. The weather is changing, and bees all over the world are not adapting.
Nils’s research has taken him far and wide, but perhaps the biggest surprise is that it might, finally, bring him home. “Being a kid, I always wanted to get out of there. I really wanted to see the world,” he says. But while when he set out, he never looked back, after 15 years, he can feel his roots pulling him back to central France.
“I feel like I’m doing all these things right now and traveling a lot and working harder because I want to be able to say, ‘OK, I’ve done this and now I’m ready to go home,’” he says. “I’ve been documenting a lot of issues, you know, documenting a lot of means of farming, a lot of ways of doing things, like beekeeping, but I would love to do it myself…”
This may be good news for the rural beekeepers in Sologne, where, as opposed to other areas Nils has visited, “beekeepers are individualists,” according to Pierre. “They don’t really like to share, for the most part. They do their own thing; each has his own method, his own little secrets, his own little ways of doing things.”
With trusted friends, however, sharing can be an important way of forging forward. One of Pierre’s beekeeper friends inherited 12 hives that hadn’t been touched in five years. Together, they took jackhammers to the bee glue-covered hives and made them workable again. Teamwork has brought them together to save Sologne’s black bee. Perhaps there’s a spot for Nils amongst them, especially because, according to Pierre, many who decide to start go too big, having no idea what they’re in for.
“Lots of people think it’s going to be easy,” he says. “You need five years just to set up. You can’t say, ‘I have the money, I’ll buy the equipment and the hives, and there we go, all I have to do now is turn on the tap and the honey flows out. That’s not how it works.”
If anyone can understand this, it would be someone who not only grew up surrounded by the buzzing of the forest, but who has learned just how important it is to protect this essential species that is such a part of the way we, as a global community, live. “I’ve been travelling in the US and seeing different ways of sustainable agriculture and sustainable living and everything,” Nils says. “I would love to do that in my own place, you know, where I’m from.”
About Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco is a born-and-raised New Yorker based in Paris. After pursuing a Masters degree in 19th century French literature – and many years of trying – she has come to the conclusion that she will likely never be French. She has since devoted herself full-time to writing about food, drink, and culture-shock for various publications and on her blog, Tomato Kumato. You can read more of her writing via EmilyMMonaco.com. She also offers guided tours of Paris’ food, wine, and literary haunts. Emily is always on the lookout for an excellent cup of American coffee, a good beer, and fantastic cheese.
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