Last week was cold, grey, damp and utterly depressing, as it can be in February here. To the insult of greyness was sometimes added the injury of pluie verglaçante (freezing rain). This was not a week for venturing out. We didn’t even join our walking group’s regular ramble, but then we’ve already been marked down as the fair-weather walkers. To make up for this, as soon as the sun finally came out yesterday, we put on our walking boots.
We did one of our favourite circuits that takes us past a friend’s house. Against the south-facing garden wall, a hazel tree was covered with catkins, lit up in the bright sunshine. The green-gold pendants released a cloud of yellow as they danced in the light breeze.
A hive of activity
After a while, we became aware of a strange buzzing sound. We knew that our friends had been suffering for years from a badly positioned EDF transformer that hums loudly. I thought it was being even more intrusive than normal. Then I looked closer and realised that the catkins were alive with hundreds of honey bees. I have never seen so many at one time, except when the farmer disturbed a hive while haymaking one year and a swarm raided the house.
Transfixed, we stood for a while watching them. Completely oblivious to our presence they continued their busy, almost frenzied, work. They stuffed their tiny pollen sacs full of golden grains as they stripped the catkins of their nectar. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera; but the shot probably wouldn’t have done justice to the scene, anyway. You have to make do with a shot of our own catkins.
Since there is nothing like this invasion of our own hazels, we concluded that there must be a hive close by. It’s been established that bees will venture several kilometres to find the right flowers, but our friends’ house must be closer to the hive than ours. It’s quite common to see a row of hives at the edge of a field around here and local markets normally have at least one stall selling locally-produced honey (in my opinion, nothing can beat their acacia honey). However, beekeeping is less widespread than it was.
Beekeepers are the people to approach if you do have a swarm, listed in the yellow pages under apiculture. Our neighbour arrived at his house – a maison secondaire – one summer to find that a swarm had nested behind the shutters. This is a favourite place, where they go undetected and undisturbed for months. He called out the beekeeper from Parisot, who gently eased his bare hand into the swarm until he found the queen at the centre. He drew her out and placed her in a cardboard box. Within half an hour, the rest of the swarm had joined her and he took the box away to start a new hive.
Bees under threat
Seeing the bees zealously at work on our friend’s hazel was cheering. It’s now well known that the global bee population is declining. A recent report in the States reveals a decline of 30%. A combination of factors seems to be causing it: over-use of pesticides, parasites, viruses and the strange phenomenon of colony collapse disorder, where colonies break up for no apparent reason. (You see: even bees suffer from disorders these days.)
France is no less affected by this than other countries. The decline is more marked in the countryside. In towns, the bee population seems less susceptible to these scourges, as a recent TV report showed. In towns, the bees have access to roof gardens and parks that are not so heavily drenched in poison as the fields. The grubbing up of hedgerows and orchards in the pursuit of ever-greater yields must also have played a part.
As my small contribution, I have resolved to plant more flowering shrubs that attract bees and other helpful insects. I draw the line, however, at having my own hives.
Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved