I have just finished two days of touring with a group of professional beekeepers from Corsica, the island off the French coast that has a checkered history of relationships with both France and Italy; what I knew about the place consisted of the fact that Napoléon Bonaparte was from that island. It is divided presently into two departments, Hauste-Corse and Course du Sud. One difference is that although there are no restrictions about importing bees into France, there is a law prohibiting such on Corsica. Thus, beekeepers there are stuck with their brand of bees which apparently is much more defensive than those found in Southern France.
We picked up twelve beekeepers at the Marseilles airport (Marignane) and traveled back through Equilles, just northeast of Aix-en-Provence into the Luberon region to visit Bernard Oza, President of the honey cooperative called Provence Miel. Mr. Oza’s place sits on the flood plain of the Durance River which is at the foot of the Luberon mountains. In the distance one can see the picturesque village of Lauris.
Some thirty beekeepers belong to this cooperative; they contribute as much honey as they see fit (usually their top grade lavender), the coop decides on a buy and sell price and the honey is marketed all across Europe. The lavender is in high demand and there is none currently waiting in the warehouses; a potential problem as one goal of the cooperative is to always have honey on hand.
Provence Miel does its own marketing and puts out a colored brochure that discusses several aspects of the Cooperative and its products. Briefly, there are about 350 beekeepers in the region producing 2000 tons of honey, moving several times per year, many using modern moving equipment (pallets). There is a long active season here (March to November) and the honey has been recognized as distinctive in the region (Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur) since the 15th century. The crown jewel of Provence honey is lavender, white to light amber, that quickly crystallizes after harvest. Provencale mixed honey is also sold, a blend of lavender, rosemary, thyme, white heather and others. Provence Miel analyses each barrel of honey for taste, odor, color, HMF, electric conductivity and water content, and keeps a sample as a record of the producer and handling It is then stored in a cold room until finally sold to the consumer.
We then visited a beeyard in the region and looked at some queen rearing nuclei. Joseph Boudon, current president of ADAPI, showed some of his stock which included Caucasian, Italian and Buckfast queens. A postscript to this is that Mr. Boudon has implemented ideas he got on a trip to the Baton Rouge Bee Laboratory some time back.
We ate lunch at Domaine de Vinsargues in the shadow of the TGV, a huge project erecting massive concrete towers across the Durance valley to support the high speed trains that will come from Paris to Marseille. There was discussion that this project is costing much more than what the French government spends for the 200,000 inhabitants of Corsica. Corsicans in general apparently feed like second-class citizens of France and a good deal of tension appears to exist between the two regions. There are proponents to becoming independent from France, but many believe Corsica couldn’t economically make it on its own.
Like many observers before me, I cannot say too much about the food here in France; the Domaine de Vinsargues is a classic inn which only serves large groups. We began with olives and anchovy paste washed down with white wine and Cassis. Then a light salad, with biologique (organic) bread, followed by lamb and potatoes with red wine, followed by several kinds of goat cheese (more wine and bread) and a slice of pinion nut tarte, followed finally by dark, black coffee. Such lunches are not cheap and long; lasting at least two hours. I thought this must be the last meal of the day, but that was not to be the case. Another four course meal awaited us at Domaine de Petite at Grans, near the larger town of Salon de Provence, where the Corsicans spent the night.
From the Durance river, we traveled south west into the town of Arles in the heart of the Rhone Delta, known as the Camargue. Here we were hosted by François Servel, current president of the Centre d’etudes de Techniqes Apicoles Apilles Luberon. Mr. Servel discussed his queen rearing efforts in baby nuclei and in bringing bees into the area and trying to adapt them to the region which is known for its cold winds (mistral). His most recent project is bringing in Caucasian queens from Tiblisi in the Republic of Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Servel also discussed the GRAPP (Le Groupement Régional des Apiculteurs Pollinisateurs Professionnels) Méditerrannée publishes a colored brochure discussing its activities to ensure adequate pollination.. Basically the pamphlet says some 6000 hives are at the service of growers and that members will consult concerning all aspects of the pollination process. The apricot pollination is now completed and the members of GRAPP are moving into pollinating apples and other crops in the area.
From Arles we took the new (one-year-old) Autoroute du Soleil (La Provençale) back to Salon de Provence. This route crosses a wide area of grass (crau), France’s last steppe, progressing from a humid type to a dry type as the elevation increases toward the east. This is sheep country, not an area good for bees. Finally, in the town of Grans, near Salon de Provence, at Domaine de Peitite, another meal! This time beef bourguignone, a classic dish in French cooking.
The next day, we took a drive east into the Department of Var back to Les Mayons to visit Lucien Lamoine who produces honey first, but then makes dark, chewy nougat and spice breads also using the honey of the region. Here we learned more about honey storage and promotion techniques and visited a bee yard just at the foot of the village of Le Mayons.
Here I saw again the fact that the frames used in France at first glance appear to be very narrow. The reason is that the wide, Hoffman end bars are not employed. Rather frames are kept apart by use of metal slots in the rabbets; the technology, not seen all too often in the U.S., that I have come to know as Stoller Frame Spacers. This is of historical interest to me; sometime back I visited the Stoller’s place in Latty, Ohio and saw the one and only frame spacer machine, a prototype where each and every metal frame spacer was stamped out individually. Now I see this technology in almost universal use here, but of course, the frame spacers are made in France and Italy. I must remember to ask why the French beekeepers prefer this technology; presumably it is better in mechanical operations to keep the frames apart during the moving process. Also I am seeing a lot of Dadant Jumbo sized frames used in brood chambers.
Next week there is a meeting of the Centre d’etudes des Techniques Apicole in Frejus south of Cannes on the Côte d’Azur. I have been asked to give a talk about Varroa control in the U.S. in French. Scary!