On my way back from the Feria Apícola in Pastrana, I visited the Phalène. I believe this means “moth” in French, but my dictionary here does not contain the word. It is also the name a breed of “moth-eared” dogs. If I look up “moth” in the English portion, the translation is “papillon de nuit.” If my analysis is correct, it is interesting that a boat named after the great insect order, Lepidoptera, houses another order, Hymenoptera. The “bee” boat, Le Bateau Abeille, plies the canal between both seas as the honey (Miel du Canal des 2 Mers) sold off the boat proclaims.
I found Phalène near the small village of Meilhan sur Garonne. The Garonne is one of France’s great rivers, arising in the Pyrenees, nourishing the vignobles (wine grapes) of Bordeaux over much of its length, before emptying into the Atlantic. Le Bateau Abeille is one of the last of her kind. Only four other such boats are in service in this area; I was lucky enough to see one go by during my visit. It is not difficult to see what canal-boat life has fallen victim to. The wonderfully maintained toll autoroutes that can get a person from one place to another quickly (speed limit 130 km/hr) here in France also see huge trucks efficiently hauling all kinds of materials that were once the province of the canal boats. Now these craft increasingly carry another cargo, tourists, both humans and honey bees. Mr. Bruno Poissonnier and Ms. Mireille Forestier had just finished moving the Phalène in anticipation of the acacia flow. This is the plant most midwesterners call black locust. It is found all over Europe and is as fickle a honey producer here as it is in its native U.S.
With Phalène moored to several large trees and the impromptu picnic we had in the shade of a warm, sunny day with Bruno, Mireille and their children, there could have been fewer conditions more idyllic as the bees busily gathered the first load of what was hoped would be a bumper acacia crop. Steve Taber described the boat in its most intimate details in his article in American Bee Journal. What is most noticeable on approach is an erect green plastic screen about four-fee high that surrounds the colonies on the deck. The reason for this is immediately apparent. It gets the insects up in the air quickly and does not allow them to come in at a gentle slope from the field. This greatly reduces the chance for stinging to occur and is the same strategy employed by urban dwellers who face their colonies toward tree lines or high fences. On the minus side, apparently this plastic screen when moved even slightly as boat rocks in the wake of other craft, somehow confuses drones and they often don’t make it back to the colony.
I found Le Bateau Abeille right on the border of two French regions. Aquitaine to the west and Midi-Pyrenées to the east. The herb honeys (lavender, thyme, rosemary) of Provence are not present here. The bees on Phalène instead gather four general types mostly in the Aquitaine region: acacia (black locust), sun flower, all flowers (tout fleurs) and spring (printemps). When there is a need, the bees are also used to pollinate orchards near the canal. The boat spends the six-month active season on the canal and in the fall begins its yearly journey into central Europe to buy and trade honey, returning again to Southern France in the spring. In winter the bees are moved off the boat into holding yards or buildings. Moving the bees on the boat is one of the biggest challenges on Phalène. Like with trucks in the U.S., the insects must be netted. Mr. Poissonnier is experimenting with the dangerous practice of eliminating the net by closing up the colonies prior to getting underway. If the conditions are even a little marginal, he has seen colonies overheat and die.
In perhaps one of the neatest packs I’ve seen, honey off the Phalène is sold in four 250-kilogram jars, each containing one of the types mentioned above, all nestled in a paper carton that looks like a canal boat. The printing shows water flowing around the hull, the after-deck housing and the boat’s name. The wrap-around package is secured at each end with two brass brads. Accompanying information proclaims the honey as unique, being collected, extracted and packed on board the world’s first and only floating bee yard.