A House with a Difference

House with a difference

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.

Bees’ front door

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. 

Hives inside the house

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? 

Inside a hive

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.

Another entrance for the bees

Copyright © 2012 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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33 Responses to A House with a Difference

  1. Pingback: Every Château Tells a Story #14: Le Château des Bordes, Lot | Life on La Lune

  2. Very interesting to read about this amazing house! I’m not sure if you’ve been back, but it looks as though the roof has been restored – I found some pictures on http://www.patrimoine-lot.com/media/ivd46_20134604460.pdf

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks for taking the trouble to find the link. We haven’t had a chance to go back since I wrote that post several years ago, but someone who lives nearby mentioned that it had been restored. And I can see from the photo in your link that they have restored the lauzes and rebuilt the chien-assis. When we visited, the roof was covered with rather sad corrugated stuff. A visit is clearly on the cards.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: 5 Hidden Gems in Southwest France | Life on La Lune

  4. Sue Whatmough says:

    Aren’t bees wonderful! We watched a swarm gathering round a hole in next-door’s wall – on the outside. We didn’t point it out knowing the bees wouldn’t bother them and worrying in case, like the last lot, they were ‘removed’. In fairness to our neighbours, who are lovely, we think it was the builders who decided to do it. Some of the bees come into our courtyard and enjoy the flowers. We pray the authorities and those who spray pesticides, will hurry up waking up to the fact they’re killing off the bee population, which would not only be tragedy but disastrous.

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    • nessafrance says:

      I try to plant shrubs etc that bees like. They are under such a threat here in the countryside. Paradoxically, they fare better in towns where they have access to municipal gardens that are not so heavily drenched in pesticides. And the mites and hornets are less evident in an urban environment.

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  5. MJ Russell says:

    Very cool! Thanks for sharing.

    Like

  6. Emily Heath says:

    Fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

    I can see that the house would have helped keep the bees warm overwinter, but not all beekeepers agree that this means they eat less honey. Rusty at Honey Bee Suite has an excellent blog post on why she thinks bees consume more honey during a warm winter: http://www.honeybeesuite.com/how-much-honey-for-a-warm-winter.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks very much for the link – interesting post. I know very little about bees and this is what the mayor told us when we visited the hive house, but I’m not sure if he is a beekeeper, either! Time for some concerted scientific research on this, perhaps. I’ve added a note in the post to indicate that there is some disagreement on this issue.

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  7. Maggie says:

    Fascinating! Could you please let me know where exactly it is…I must walk by it frequently but didn’t know its history (we have house nearby). Hope to see you next time we’re in France!

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    • nessafrance says:

      I thought of you when I wrote this since I know you have a house near there. The place is not easy to find and we followed the special signs that were up for the day. However, as far as I can remember, you take a left turn just before entering the village (i.e. as if you had come from Vidaillac direction and then turned right where it’s signposted Promilhanes). You end up at a place called Mas de Méric and the maison rucher itself is along a track just past there. I don’t know if you can get into the house normally and there isn’t a lot to see from the outside – most things of interest are in it. If you’re acquainted with the maire, I suggest you have a word with him – I’m sure he’d be delighted to open it up for you. I am looking forward to seeing it again once it’s restored.

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      • maggie says:

        Thanks! The maire and his wife are extremely nice, I’ll certainly ask. I think I know where this house is, that track is my very favourite walking route. Mas de Meric is owned by another very sympa guy. I really wish I were able to be there in June or Sept during the patrimoine days….maybe another year

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      • nessafrance says:

        The maire seemed very sympa. We also met the owner of Mas de Méric, who was exhibiting his walnut oil mill, housed in the barn at his property. I’m about to write a post on that – when I can get away from our fête preparations!

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      • maggie says:

        PS FYI, the Promilhanes village fete is the 2nd weekend in July. Last year they had a great program on patrimoine, mainly for children, but also for adults.

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      • nessafrance says:

        Thanks for letting me know – sounds interesting. There are a lot of competing events but I’d like to find out more about the patrimoine around there.

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  8. Liz says:

    So interesting! I love hearing what unusual buildings like these were used for. great post!

    Like

  9. Evelyn says:

    You find the most interesting things to write about! So I’m assuming that the hive boxes had some sort of cover on the inside that could be taken off to remove the honey?

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, the honey would have been removed from the inside of the house but the covers no longer remain, although the wooden hive boxes built into the walls are still there. You should go and take a look. It’s not that far from you – just the other side of Limogne. Mind you, I don’t know if you can look inside on an ordinary day – it might be locked – and it’s not so interesting from the outside.

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  10. I wonder how widespread the concept of the maison rucher was. I have never heard of this!

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    • nessafrance says:

      As far as I can tell from my limited researches there seem to be very few examples, except in ancient Persia, where no doubt they were somewhat different. I had never heard of it, either, until our visit this weekend. But it is fascinating and I will be very pleased to see the house restored.

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  11. Lovely post and lovely idea. Not seen anything like it before, but we kind of live in a modern equivalent – the bees decide to move into our wall cavities!

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    • nessafrance says:

      On several occasions, but thankfully several years ago, we have had bee swarms in the house. They are not easy to get rid of. I found the house we saw absolutely fascinating and would love to know if there are more along the same lines in France. It can’t be the only one.

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  12. susancarey says:

    Lovely blog, Vanessa. I’m going to forward it to my husband who is fascinated by beekeeping. It will be wonderful to see it restored.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks, Susan. I’ll be interested to hear if there is anything similar in Holland.

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      • susancarey says:

        Just see your reply now! I don’t think so although the Dutch are pretty keen beekeepers. There is even a special allotmenteers’ association for beekeepers. It’s just over the road from where my husband and I have our garden so we benefit from the bee visitors!

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      • nessafrance says:

        Thanks for the information. Long may you profit from your bee visitors.

        Like

  13. Kate Swaffer says:

    fascinating story 🙂

    Like

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