Upriver from where I found Le Bateau Abeille (April 24, 1997) is the town of Montauban. It nestles near the confluence of the Garonne and Tarn rivers. In close proximity is the village called Villebrummier, where I met Steve Taber at the house called “Goudous.” Many know Steve from his writings in the American Bee Journal over the last several years. Steve and I first met at the University of Georgia when he came to Athens to give a class on instrumental insemination. He has authored one of the better contemporary books in apiculture, Breeding Super Bees, published by the A.I. Root Co.
Steve cultivates an unorthodox reputation and some of his ideas appear outlandish at first glance. Many, however, are based on a solid knowledge of honey bee biology, acquired through decades of training and research at several U.S.D.A. laboratories. I have been especially impressed with his notion that one can raise honey bees at any time of year as long they have enough protein from pollen and carbohydrate from sugar. The presence of drones is an indicator of the quality of protein in a colony, according to Steve. This leads to the conclusion that drones can be seen as a dynamic nutrition bank for a beehive. The bees put protein into use (raising drone larvae) when times are good, but can also easily withdraw it (consuming drone eggs and developing larvae) when times are bad.
Steve has lived in France for seven years now. I was lucky to catch him here, however, for very shortly he will be moving back to the U.S. If his plans crystallize as he sees them at present, he will settle near his home town of Columbia, South Carolina. While in France, Steve has done considerable research in conjunction with the Tucson, AZ laboratory. The purpose of these studies was to look at something he has always been interested in, hygienic behavior in honey bees. In this case, he was purposefully selecting for non-hygienic bees that have been found, in spite of this behavior, to show resistance to chalkbrood infestation.
His sojourn in France has given Steve some insight into agricultural policy. In contrast to that in the U.S. which encourages larger and larger farming operations, he says, the French government has adopted for the opposite. As a consequence, there are a large number of interest-free loans available to young people interested in farming. And the younger one is, the more favorable are the loans, Steve maintains. The practical result of this is what has been apparent to me ever since I came here, many young beekeepers well capitalized with modern equipment. This is also the reason, Steve concludes, the young Bruno Poissonnier was able to reoutfit Le Bateau Abeille (April 24, 1997) for his beekeeping operation. In the U.S., the same young population would have an extremely difficult time acquiring the necessary capital investment so early in their careers.
Steve points to his own experience in selling his house as another example of the French government’s agricultural policy. Even though the place, including several hectares of meadow and woodlands (with the family name “Goudous”), was sold to an urban dweller, nearby young farmers were given a large block of time to decide to also purchase it at favorable rates, and would be given preference if they chose to do so. Whether these French agricultural policies are working on a larger scale is debatable.
A graphic on Page 32 of the Courrier International (No. 336, 10 thru 16, April, 1997) shows the agricultural population in decline all across Europe. The highest is Greece with 20 percent, the lowest Belgium (1.5 percent). France is 4.8 percent and Spain is 7.8 percent. The accompanying text quotes the Spanish newspaper El Pais which stated that for the first time the number of persons in agriculture has fallen below a million in that country. Even more disturbing is the absence of interest in the younger population. From 1980 to 1994, it concludes, the number of persons age 16 to 19 in the agricultural sector has fallen from 7.1 percent to 3.9 percent. Although I do not have the exact figures, the figure traditionally used in the U.S. for the active agricultural population is 2 percent.
When the conversation got around the pollination, Steve said conditions in France are about like those of the 1960s in California or Florida. The main reason is that fields are generally small, and, thus, pollination can be left to wild bees or local beekeepers who pollinate for free while collecting honey.
I was disappointed not to have the opportunity to visit Steve’s neighbor, Dr. John Kefuss. This is especially true considering Steve’s statement that Dr. Kefuss, who was trained in Germany at Dr. Ritter’s laboratory, has apparently found a bee that is tolerant to Varroa. The only additional information I could get on this issue was that the bee originated in Tunisia. This would be an exciting development indeed. Unfortunately, I was unable to confirm this with Dr. Kefuss himself, who had just returned from Chile in South America where he is in the process of setting up a queen rearing business. He did provide me with some interesting ideas when I saw him at the Montpellier Apimondia Congress in 2009
Steve proposed lunch in Montauban at the Casino® cafeteria. Lest the term conjure up images of overcooked vegetables and stale coffee., remember we were in France. The food is a cut above cafeteria fare as it is known in the U.S., and the price shows it. Naturally, wine is just a prevalent as water. The bread and goat cheeses demand it. After lunch Steve went into the Géant® supermarket, called a hypermarket here for good reason, to buy the English edition of the Herald-Tribune.
No trip to the Montauban area, known as Tarn et Garonne, would be complete without a visit to the walled, fortified city called Puycelci dating from the 11th century, according to Steve, who offered to be a guide. On approach, the town can be seen perched right on top of a hill. It has all the prerequisites of those spots highlighted in tourist brochures of southern France, including a wonderful church with stain glass windows. The view from the town’s park of the nearby Grésigne forest and the far-off mountains containing the famous Tarn gorge is magnificent; it has not been blemished by the trappings of civilization (wires and road ways). Thus, it is possible to imagine oneself back in the middle ages with farmers cultivating the fields below and knights in armor galloping up the old approach to the city and through the ancient gate (no longer in use), dating as far back as Roman times. This area is also rich in history of religious conflict. It was from towns like Puycelci that the persecuted French Huguenots fled to the new world, establishing themselves first as “Acadians” in the Canadian maritime provinces. Many, after being drummed out of Canada by the British, finally wound up as “Cajuns” in southern Louisiana.