a french garden

First visit to a beekeeper

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We have been buying honey supplied by a local producer, Michel Henry.  In fact we discovered that he lived very close to us and we were able to make his acquaintance and were invited to visit his hives.

Hives in the garden

The entrance to the house is very discrete but once inside a beautiful well-tended garden opens out and tucked away on one side are the beehives.  He keeps the black honey bees that are native to France.  As he talked his passion for bee keeping became obvious and he was happy to answer all my questions.  He has been keeping bees for twelve years and it is a hobby that has grown over the years.  He started with one hive and when one year the honey that he had harvested did not last the family over the winter he decided to add more hives.  Now he has twelve hives.

Glass topped hive

One of the hives is equipped with a glass top so I was able to take a peek inside without troubling the bees.

Bees with pollen sacs

At this time of year there is still a good number of flowering plants in the area and on the day of my visit the ivy had just started flowering.  There are large quantities of ivy flowering in the woods nearby.

Hornet trap

I mentioned that I had not seen any Asiatic hornets since I had trapped them in the spring.  Unfortunately they seem to target the hives as one swooped down and took a bee as we watched.  Michel explained that he has to watch helpless as they sit on a branch out of range and chew the head, legs and wings off before taking the body back to their nest.  He was quite surprised to see one attacking so late in the season as the bees are used for feeding the hornet larvae.  Later in the season the hornets would be more likely to try to steal the honey, especially from weaker colonies.  Michel keeps a large spade handy which he uses to swat them with.

He uses the hornet trap constantly and when he discovered I had success with mine in the spring he gave me a bottle of his special lure which he makes himself from bee by-products and which he says will prove more efficient than my beer and fruit jam concoction.

Pet bees?

Apart from the other hives Michel possess another hive which he does not keep for its honey.  He allows the bees to use it like a wild hive.

The hive exposed

He explained that the bees are capable of surviving cold weather but dampness is a problem, so he protects the old hive with a plastic tub and keeps it under the shelter of a tree.

I was surprised by the old hive and straight away thought of some of the pictures of hives portrayed on honey labels.  This was the shape of hives I had seen drawn in old books when I was a child.  He explained that these hives had no supers and would have to be renewed annually and he doubted if anyone would be able to make them any more.

He said they were made from straw bound together with bramble.

Eighty year old hive

This hive belonged to an old uncle of Michel and by back calculation he reckons it must be about eighty year old.

Old style hive

This one he believes to be a little younger and he saved it from being burnt as rubbish when a house was being cleared out, although many others were destroyed.

There is something very homely about the old style hives.  I am impressed by the neatness and care that went into their construction.  I would have loved to know how anyone could make something like that out of straw and brambles.

I did a quick internet search and found what I was looking for, unfortunately the commentary is in German but the film speaks for itself.  It does last for fifteen minutes but I found it fascinating.  I think they cut young willow to use as the binding material but perhaps someone could enlighten me here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gT-VeHAFIQ&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL

Honey comb full of honey

It was such a lovely visit.  He showed us equipment for extracting the honey and testing that there is not too much moisture in it, inside his spotless centre of operations.

He asked me if I intended to start keeping bees.  I explained that I was very interested in Bumble bees and asked him if he knew of anyone else that might be interested.  He did not, and mentioned that at one of their regional bee keeping meetings someone had brought a Bumble bee along for identification but no-one had been able to help.

I also explained I went back to the UK for short periods from time to time.  He said that should not be a problem and on the financial side beginning bee keepers often borrow equipment.

I must admit I am greatly drawn to bee keeping but I would still have to learn a lot more before I took the big step.

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Author: afrenchgarden

Born in Scotland I have lived in England, Iran, USA and Greece. The house and land was bought twelve years ago in fulfilment of the dream of living in France that my Francophile husband nurtured. We had spent frequent holidays in France touring the more northerly parts and enjoying the food, scenery, architecture and of course gardens. However, we felt that to retire in France and enjoy a more clement climate than we currently had in Aberdeen we would need to find somewhere south of the river Loire but not too south to make returning to visit the UK onerous. The year 2000 saw us buying our house and setting it up to receive us and the family on holidays. The garden was more a field and we were helped by my son to remove the fencing that had separated the previous owners’ goats, sheep and chickens. We did inherit some lovely old trees and decided to plant more fruit trees that would survive and mature with the minimum of care until we took up permanent residence. The move took place in 2006 and the love hate relation with the “garden” started. There was so much to do in the house that there was little energy left for the hard tasks in the garden. It was very much a slow process and a steep learning curve. Expenditures have been kept to a minimum. The majority of the plants have been cuttings and I try to gather seeds wherever I can. The fruit trees have all been bought but we have tender hearts and cannot resist the little unloved shrub at a discount price and take it as a matter of honour to nurse it back to health. This year I have launched my Blog hoping to reach out to other gardeners in other countries. My aim is to make a garden for people to enjoy, providing shady and sunny spots with plants that enjoy living in this area with its limestone based subsoil and low rainfall in a warm summer. Exchanging ideas and exploring mutual problems will enrich my experience trying to form my French garden.

40 thoughts on “First visit to a beekeeper

  1. Fascinating! Lovely photos. What a pest those hornets are, I really hope French beekeepers can keep their numbers down.

    Bumble bees are usually happy to nest in tufty grass but you could perhaps create a home for solitary bees by drilling some holes into wood. A solitary bee home is a lot of fun to watch as they are always coming and going. I have some examples on my blog at http://adventuresinbeeland.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/national-bee-unit-varroa-workshop-part-4-the-enchanted-garden/ and at the bottom of the page on http://adventuresinbeeland.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/bee-keepers-day/ – you could perhaps create some smaller-scale examples!

    If bumbles are definitely the bees for you, then a bee expert recommended this book on attracting and even raising bumblebees to me: http://www.beesfordevelopment.org/catalog/product_info.php/products_id/312.

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    • That looks like a very interesting book, thanks for the recommendation. I have had two bumble bee nests in the garden this year, one of the red-tailed in the wall of the house and the white-tailed at the bottom of the garden. The bamboo bee house has been refilled as well! I am going to be trying for more for the bumbles, just even to see if they will take to prepared ones.

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  2. I used to keep bees – and hope to again in the future. All my equipment was second hand and so not too expensive and the swarm came from a colony living in my chimney! But I gave my hive away eventually because the bees became aggressive, attacking anyone (inc our young son) whenever we went into the garden. The chap who took them away said that they were nasty simply because of the Queen! He replaced her and the whole colony became chilled again! Aggressive queen = aggressive colony. I did find there was a lot to learn and at the time I didn’t really have the time to devote to them. One day though. Dave

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    • Bees fascinate me and I have had thoughts on keeping them for a long time. I do not want to begin unless I am absolutely sure to be capable of looking after them properly. It is interesting that you still would like to start again if you had the opportunity.

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  3. Maybe the beekeeper would be willing to act as a mentor for your first hive. Books and such are great, but there is nothing like diving in and experiencing these amazing creatures first hand.

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    • Yes, he did say he would be happy to help me and I could share equipment but I am still very unsure of the responsibility. I would never have considered doing it without a mentor as I agree with you – books are invaluable but cannot replace talking to someone with experience.

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  4. What a fascinating visit! Your beekeeper seems like a really great guy and very well informed. He is quite right about the old comb being much more effective as a lure, although I notice he is using what looks like an unmodified trap — does he have much trouble with by-catch (ie catching things other than Asian Hornets?)

    Those old ruches are really interesting. We have a tradition of basket weaving with willow and bramble around this area. I will see what I can find out about making hives. Did he mention that in the really old days (medieval and renaissance) the hives were set on fire to extract the honey — that is, each year the bees were sacrificed to get at the honey. I don’t know when that changed, or how the honey was extracted from these basket style hives.

    Btw, studies show that bumble bees pretty well never use nests provided for them — you need to provide the habitat they like — long grass, mossy patches on banks, hollows under tree roots, piles of stones at the base of walls, banks with abandoned small mammal nest holes. ‘Hotels’ for solitary bees on the other hand work a treat.

    Tell your beekeeper friend that if he wants to send photos of bumble bees to me I am happy to ID them (assuming the photos are good enough and it is a species one can ID from photos…). They were one of the groups I studied at university and I am rather fond of them.

    Good luck with furthering your beekeeping ambitions.

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  5. I think this is absolutely wonderful and hope to visit a beekeeper my self one day! Now they say when you visit another farm or garden you learn net techniques and processes. Was there anything you learned this day that someone like me would have not known about keeping bees from our precious books?

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    • I had thought I would have to be present on a daily basis but you can leave them for short periods. I was very touched with the help that he offered to me and I found out that he was also a member of a larger society with even more back up help. I enjoyed talking with someone else who was interested in all aspects of bees. I also was very touched seeing the old hives and thinking of all the people who have been interested in bees over such a long.I suppose I learnt such a lot it is hard to put it all down!

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  6. A fascinating visit for you, and what a charming video! Most of the commentary is explaining what they are doing, which is so clearly shown I don’t think a translation is necessary. But here are a couple of points maybe not clear without the words: These two old men spend their winters making these bee hives and brooms etc. They use willow shoots, all the same length and with no side shoots. Bramble can also be used. The straw – threshed to remove the heads – is rye, preferably grown on poor, dry ground, as it is then stronger. He splits the willow into three, and then smooths it (what an art – as is the whole weaving process!). From 10:13 -11.35 minutes he is making the hole for the bees to fly through. The ring used for guiding the straw through is made of cowhide.
    Something to try out in winter?!

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    • I was rather hoping you might translate! Thank you. I guessed about the willow but I am interested that it is rye straw that they are using. I did not notice that he took so long to make the hole for the bees, I expect there was also a lot of thought that went into it as well as the manual skill required to cut through it without unravelling the whole lot! Interesting that it was their winter work, probably too cold for field work and it gave them some extra income. Many thanks.

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  7. Amelia, I have just watched the You-Tube video… fabulous! It is willow that he was using… had to wait right until the end to get a good look at the bark [the other possibility would have been hazel.]
    The straw was from a long-stemmed barley or spelt… the emphasis being on long-stemmed. The combing was the same method as for reed. If you want to have a go, the long-stemmed barley or spelt will be the most difficult thing to get hold of!
    You will probably need to grow your own… but the seed isn’t difficult to find.
    Else, someone near you might be growing epeutre [spelt]…. looks like a less hairy barley… and the leaf and stem colour when growing, are a distinct grey-blue green.
    Great posting!

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    • I loved the video too but I have no desire to have a go !

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      • Interesting that it is rye straw… along with spelt, probably one of the few long stemmed crop grasses out there [completely forgot that… and, of course, rye is a very popular flour in Germany. As for having a go, it is very theraputic…
        allegedly! ;-}
        I’m growing various types of willow here… some to make hurdles from… also theraputic… the swearing involved gets rid of all tension!
        Also, he was splitting the willow in two… hazel could be split in three, but only larger branches…. as used in thatching staples. He used the weaver/thatcher’s trick of twisting the stem to stop it cracking [loosens the fibres] when he made the ties for the bundle he cut, too.

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  8. A fascinating post, it’s great to see how the locals work whether it be in bee keeping or farming and also the traditions that they hold dear. With your interest in bees in general it would be a fascinating task to take on although I can understand your reluctance to start until you have a good understanding of the work involved.

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  9. Fascinating, I’ve also thought of keeping bees but I don’t think we eat anywhere near enough honey to make it worthwhile. I know there is bee keeper fairly close by so maybe I would be too close in competition with his hives. Christina

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    • You have a point there, but I also make most of my jams, jellies and chutney for general distribution amongst family and friends so I do not think with one hive we would be over run with honey. I am not sure about competition, I think they can travel a good distance, I never discussed competition, I got the impression it would not be an issue.

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      • Being a beekeeper I can tell you that bees will forage 3-5 miles from the hive and depending on the forage and all will give you an amount of honey you can take each year (that which is surplus to the bees). I removed 5 quarts of honey from my hive this year. Believe me friends and family were delighted with the gifts of honey.

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  10. Very interesting post, especially about the hornets predating the bees.

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  11. This is delightful! I love the old hives and, as you might expect, the bees of course! Beekeeping has become the latest middle-class hobby in London and the Home Counties. One just isn’t fashionable if one doesn’t keep bees ;). I have friends who have taken up the hobby, and they spent a lot of time being trained before they started their first hive two years ago. The first year, their hive produced enough honey only for one very small jar. This year has been a disaster. Their bees have swarmed, spontaneously died, and generally failed. I gather it is not an easy thing to be a beekeeper!

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    • I love to read the beekeepers’ blogs and it does sound very complicated. I think I would be mortified if I did anything wrong, I certainly would not want to start beekeeping until I was fairly confident I could handle it. I was not aware of how popular it had become in the UK until recently. I think the popularity must be in part due to the revolution in access to knowledge with TV and the Web, in addition to better quality informative literature. Nowadays it is possible to find out “How to” for so many interests from parachuting to diving to making homemade cheese.

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  12. A very lovely post. Especially now when reports have dokumented that there are a lot of fake honey around. It’s best to buy locally produced honey.

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    • I haven’t heard about fake honey near us but I have heard that if you suffer from hayfever it is good to eat local honey during the winter. The small quantity of local pollen in the honey can help you get used to the pollen and not react to larger quantities in the spring in an allergic reaction.

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  13. Sorry I cliked to like it lots of times the computer was slow and i was impatient.

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  14. Now its deleted all the extas so you will bewondering what I am on about.c

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  15. What a great story and I love the photos of you looking inside the glass-topped hive. Really interesting information about hornets too – my big fear but sounds like French beeks are working at keeping them under control.

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    • They are trying but as far as I know without success at limiting their spread. It is the old story of the non-native species.

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      • It is really useful to hear their news and efforts on this though, it can only help UK beeks if the asian hornet does finally make it across the channel. One beekeeper I spoke to was planning to put a tube-entry system on his hive that only bees can fit into. But really the best thing is for there to be stricter controls over transport risks of non-native species.

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        • I do hope they do not make it across the Channel. Their introduction to France is believed to be accidental and there are myths that they arrived in pots to the port of Bordeaux. I cannot understand the idea of a tube entry to the hive. They patrol near the hives and pick off the bees coming and going where they have lots of choice. Is he thinking of Vespa mandarinia, the giant asiatic hornet, which thankfully we don’t have?

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  16. http://www.urbanbees.co.nz/ I think the idea of leasing bees is wonderful. Maybe expensive but to be able to have bees and honey without the work and worry seems good to me. Unfortunately my garden is small and urban and I don’t think the neighbourhood would like me to have a hive.

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    • I would be very up for the idea of someone keeping a hive in my garden. I would love to watch the bees but I am not quite ready to take the responsibility of being the sole carer for the bees. I do like to take off for two or three weeks at a moments notice. The flowers don’t care and my neighbours help with any essential watering (I limit this) but I think the bees would need more attention.

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  17. My grandfather kept bees and I’ve always been fascinated by them. I wanted to do it where I am now, but my landlord is allergic to bee stings–so doesn’t want them here on the farm. I have to agree that I’d prefer to keep the landlord. Maybe in my next place.

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