Ever since I came to southern France, lavender has been on my mind. That’s because its a prime nectar source in much of the Mediterranean basin. It is in Provence where much is grown commercially, however, that it is most highly sought after by both producer and consumer. The honey is extra light amber to white, has that unique “lavender” essence and crystallizes into a very smooth texture.
Lavender blooms in southern France beginning the first week in July. The bees are attracted to it, but so is a host of other insects. This leads to a major problem, use of pesticides on the crop. A leaflet published by the Secrétariat: ARDEPPAM in Manosque, France is entitled: “Recognize the pests of Lavendes and Lavandins.” It provides pictures and descriptions of the larvae of several beetles and moths that attack this plant. Plant bugs of various types are also listed. The insecticides recommended for control are generally toxic to bees.
Unfortunately, the lavender plant is not grown for bee forage only. Its first use is for the perfume trade. Much of the material stays in France, but a large portion is also exported. The high value of the crop makes pesticide application economically feasible, sometimes obligatory, if a good crop is to be realized. Farmers, therefore, often give honey bees short shrift in their decisions to apply chemical control. This leads to the standard problems seen all over the world between beekeeper and grower when it comes to pesticide application. French beekeepers do have some protection in the form of insurance which is available in case of colony damage, but this is often only a Band-Aid approach and not a final solution to the problem
Perhaps the most complete study concerning the lavender plant and its effects on beekeeping was published by E. Barbier (Annales de L’abeille, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 85-159, 1963). According to this document, the genus Lavandula is represented by three species in southeastern France, L. latifolia, L. vera, and L. stoechas. The most important plant, however, is the hybrid of these, grouped under the name “lavandins.” The hybrid produces more essence and so has been cultivated since 1925 throughout the region. Unfortunately, the plant also produces very little pollen and practically none is gathered by the bees. This results in a reduction in colony growth during the time bees are on the lavandins. It also means that colonies on lavandins have limited populations for any succeeding nectar flow. In addition, colony strength can be so low that the bees do not have the ability to remove the optimum amount of moisture from the nectar which can lead to deterioration of the subsequent honey crop. These elements, together with possible pesticide damage to colonies, makes going to the lavender for honey production a risky business in southern France.
The honey from lavandins is, however, highly sought after. In general, it commands a premium price. Unfortunately, it, like many premium honeys, is prone to abuse in the form of mislabeling. As a consequence, a “Red Label” has been adopted for this particular product to ensure customers that the product is as advertised. Unfortunately, the limited amount of pollen in the product acts against effective certification of the honey as monofloral. According to Y. Loublier and colleagues (Grana Vol. 33, pp. 231-238, 1994), the characterization of monofloral lavender honey (Lavandula sp and their hybrids) is based on a ten to 20 percent pollen content. This level is set by the International Commission of Bee Botany. Their study using 36 commercial samples did not reveal enough pollen to enable certification of these as monofloral.One remarkable conclusion found by E. Barbier was that honey bee visitation results in an increase in essential oils in the lavandins. This is evidence that honey bee foraging can be beneficial in fields, whether or not pollen is actively gathered and transferred. Some of the same phenomena appears to be true for other cultivated plants, like seedless watermelons . Taken together, these other effects are good arguments for beekeepers to make to growers during bloom time in an effort to keep pesticide application to a minimum.