The building above is just an ordinary ruined house, right? Wrong. It’s a very rare example of a maison rucher, a hive house, in which beehives were built into the walls. People inhabited the rest of the small house, which is on two floors. It’s therefore an unusual instance of cohabitation between humans and the animal kingdom.
I was in my element this weekend. Saturday and Sunday were Journées du Patrimoine du Pays et des Moulins (heritage days, celebrating mills of all descriptions). Throughout our region, mills and other examples of cultural heritage were open to the public. We decided to go to Promilhanes, just over the border in the Lot Département, where there were several interesting things to be seen. What we saw is worth two blog posts, so I’ll concentrate in this one on the maison rucher.
A smiling man greeted us as we drove up. He turned out to be the maire of Promilhanes, a Breton himself but married to a woman from the village. He moved there in 1974, became maire in 1983 and has been so ever since. He explained that the maison rucher was formerly in private ownership but the owner was unable to carry out the necessary repairs and ceded it to the commune for a small sum. The commune is now raising money for its restoration.
Until fairly recently no one knew the maison rucher was there and its origins are shrouded in mystery. Everyone thought it was just another ruined building, which pepper the countryside around here. It was only when the vegetation was cleared away that its function was revealed. The roof was in a sorry state and a temporary replacement keeps out the rain. Originally it was roofed with lauzes, or stone slabs. They were placed in an overlapping pattern on top of the laths and required no nails or other fixing device. Old photos show that the house also had a dormer window.
The house contains 14 wooden hives, which the bees were able to access through special holes in the walls. The bees would swarm into the hives and set up home. Each hole had a small flat stone underneath it so the bees could take off and land easily. The hives were sealed on the inside so that the bees did not bother the occupants. The wooden hives had different-shaped entrance holes but it’s not clear why.
The house is complete with fireplace and chimney. The former performed two functions. It kept the people warm, obviously. But it also kept the bees warm in winter, the maire told us. This meant that they did not eat so much of their honey for energy, leaving more honey to be harvested the following summer. However, as you’ll see from Emily’s comment below, not all beekeepers agree that warmth makes the bees eat less. In fact, it might make them more active and therefore hungrier. So maybe the house was built on a false premise?
The last known occupant of the house was a priest who used it as a sort of maison sécondaire (summer house). L’abbé des abeilles, I suppose. After that, it fell into disuse.
The house has a number of interesting features. M. le Maire pointed out to us a band of cement running around the walls about two-thirds of the way up. I have seen this on other old houses in the region. Now I know what it’s for: to prevent the mice from getting up into the roof. They were unable to get a foothold (or pawhold, I suppose) on it.
The Mayor said that they will have restored the building by this time next year. I will definitely return to see it brought back to its former glory.
If anyone knows of other examples in France, please leave a comment below. I have done some research on the Internet both in French and English but can’t find references to any others. It seems they were not uncommon in ancient Persia but humans didn’t occupy the houses along with the bees: it was simply a way of grouping the hives.
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