I have just returned from the French Alps where I can report beekeeping is alive and well. I visited three separate beekeepers in the area in Barcelonnette, Jausiers and Abries (one is presently rearing queens on the Plain of Valensole, south and west of the Alps). Alpine professional beekeeping is very much a migratory activity (transhumance). All the beekeepers I met in this area move at least once and up to three times per year. Their honey sources are mixed and can be part or totally honeydew. The honeydew has been reported to be a problem here on occasion as it causes problems in colonies being wintered in the region (dysentery) Acacia, lavender and mountain flowers (tout fleurs) are some specialty honeys made available to the public in the Alps. Several beekeepers in the area are working on a special designation for mountain honey which would have the coveted controlled origin and red labels enjoyed by other honeys in France.
Alpine beekeeping equipment is a mixture of Dadant and Langstroth and beekeepers use a bee a hybrid, mostly of black, or Apis mellifera mellifera ancestry, that is preferred for its productivity although it is very defensive. Their trucks are smaller than what is generally seen in the U.S. The reason for this is obvious to anyone with experience driving the narrow, winding roads that predominate in the area. They raise a few queens of their own, but do not actively breed bees; queens are purchased to add genetic variability. They keep nuclei with emergency queens going in small hives (ruchettes).
Varroa control is a mix of procedures. However, because of the weather, brood is not present all year around. As a consequence, beekeepers in the Alps may get by with only one chemical treatment. This is usually just after the fall honey flow to ensure a crop of good quality winter bees. They can use controls like trapping Varroa in drone brood and “soft” chemicals such as formic and oxalic acids in other seasons. In addition, the wax moth problem in stored supers is minimized by the cold winter and spring temperatures. One beekeeper stores frames so they are subject to air and light; he realizes that keeping them stored in dark supers is perfect for the moth’s development. This same beekeeper also is routinely sending brood frames to Marseilles to be irradiated. He says these treatments work extremely well in helping control foulbrood and chalkbrood.
Like many others in France, the beekeepers I met in the Alps have gotten into the business relatively late, their thirties and forties, and generally AFTER Varroa was introduced. They are young and full of vigor and fit the profile developed by Mr. Pascal Jourdan, my host at ADAPI. Several had previous professions as ski instructor and/or participated in other alpine sports like parapenting (sport parachuting) , flying gliders and mountain climbing.
Besides producing honey, most beekeepers in the Alps, like elsewhere in France, also market honey nougat and mead (hydromel). These latter activities are extremely important. They not only provide a hedge for honey sales, but also are very good products for the local sales which is more and more concentrated in the tourist market. Some make these products on their own and others send the honey out to third party manufacturers. In the Alps, like so many other places in France, you can find honey in local artesian shops and specific sites that beekeepers or their families man. Of particular interest is the relatively large number of beekeeping museums (ecomuseums) which also are used as a marketing tool to bring in visitors.
One museum I visited in the Périgord Noir area included a full extracting apparatus, a historical display of cork and other bark hives and two large observation colonies. In addition, on display was a well-done video program on honey bees in general, along with a discussion of various local tourist attractions. This particular place also sold a specialty item called “Tartinoix.” The region is known for its walnuts, so this product consists of local honey mixed with walnut paste, providing a different taste indeed. This particular museum is “Les Abeilles du Périgord,” 24210 La Bachellerie, Tél 05-53-54-40-53.
Some other venues I have heard about and hope to see are the beehives at the Paris’ Opera (Miellerie de la Opera) and the beekeeping school in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. The beekeeping walls of Provence and Vaucluse are also still on the list.