I have just returned from visiting one of Europe’s unique beekeeping sites. The Ile d’Yeu lies off the West coast of France seventeen kilometers into the Atlantic Ocean. Sporting four to five thousand souls in winter and spring, the population grows to over thirty thousand in the summer as the mainlanders head for the seaside. The island is known countrywide for its gastronomy and other amenities.
A word of caution to the prospective visitor. Do not show up without some prior planning. The ferry to the island runs irregularly, if at all; the car ferry was not running the days I was to visit and the passenger ferry was also filled to capacity for the next two days and would not let me on. In retrospect, the summer vacation period is probably the best time to visit, but I was there in spring, before the tourist season began. Fortunately, there is air service. A scant fifteen minutes out of the Nantes Atlantique Airport and another five for taxi, takeoff and landing puts you on the windward side of the island at the aerodrome. Air West flies regularly year around with up to four flights a day in summer. Connecting flights will put one on the island in an hour and a half from Paris.
The isolation from the mainland, of course, makes the Ile d’Yeu ideal for raising controlled honey bee stock. Mr. Patrick Vienne and Mme Marie-Renée Guillevic live at the end of a bumpy road just outside the main town (Port-Joinville). They rear purebred queens from stock shipped in from the capital of the Georgian Republic, Tiblizi. The Apis mellifera géorgiénnes of the Ile d’Yeu, Mr. Vienne’s advertisements say, was formerly known as Apis mellifera caucasica. No matter what you call the stock, it is a sight to behold. I have rarely seen as uniform colored a honey bee as exists on the island. In addition, the gentleness of this gray-colored bee is something else. The queen rearing outfit is now called ApisSelect.
It is not often that you can take a three-year-old into the bee yard without any protection and have him peer into the top of a hive without getting nervous about the outcome. However, that is exactly what happened as we moved about Mr. Vienne’s beeyard with his son. Smoke was used, of course, but not much. In defense of the bees, the youngster did get a sting or so, but with any other stock, he would have been in serious trouble. Rigorous selection for gentleness and housekeeping are the hallmarks of Mr. Vienne’s operation. He controls this with instrumental insemination and by raising many drones to free mate with daughters which are sold to a wide variety of customers. Although he exerts a lot of local control, Mr. Vienne believes he could produce a better stock if he had more feedback from customers than he presently receives. The gentleness is also a drawback in some cases; beekeepers using the stock have complained that it is not defensive enough for their purposes, some adamant that only the most defensive bees can make adequate honey crops.
The bee breeding station on Ile d’Yeu called “Oya.” was established in 1978; Mr. Vienne has concentrated on rearing pure Georgian stock since 1986. The island is small (2330 hectares), but most of it is a protected zone with a rich array of vascular plants (760 species). There’s enough pollen to sustain the bees, Mr. Vienne says, but little nectar and so he has to feed his colonies almost continuously during the rearing season. The lack of nectar-producing plants is an asset, Mr. Vienne says, as it keeps newly mated queens from excessive egg-laying before being shipped. However, this can also be problem; how can a really productive honey-producing bee be selected and developed in an area with a less-than-optimum nectar potential?
At the aerodrome, I was struck by the wind velocity off the Atlantic; a series of storms scudded across the island in the morning, though the day turned partly cloudy and fair in the afternoon. The wind can be a factor in many queen rearing situations because it may prevent mating and/or cause virgin queens to become disoriented or lost, but Mr. Vienne does not believe it much of a problem as there are many protected places on the island. The wind, in fact, he says may be an asset because it would tend to select only the strongest flying drones as potential mates for his queens, resulting in a hardier stock. He uses standard Doolittle rearing methods. He starts and finishes in the same colony, a variation of the separate starter and finisher hives found in other operations. The mildness of the maritime climate allows for queen production most of the year and produces a bee ecotype ideally suited to western Europe, Mr. Vienne says.
As we wandered through the beeyard, several topics came up. U.S. “trade protectionism” is a continuing theme here, extremely important for queen breeders like Mr. Vienne who would like to export his bees worldwide. A brief look at his customer log book reveals that his bees do in fact make it to most points on the globe. The 1922 law that forbids bringing bee stock into the U.S. is something not well understood in France where anything seems to go when it comes to bee importation. I tried to explain the reasoning for the law, but events in the 1980s bringing first Acarapis and then Varroa to U.S. shores and the subsequent stalling of the Africanized honey bee ( AHB) migration make it less and less logical. The case against purposeful introducing bee stock, of course, as shown by the AHB experience in tropical America, Varroa introduction almost worlwide, and the Apis mellifera capensis situation in South Africa exists.
Within this context, I also tried to explain the present border closure between the U.S. and Canada. Others here have asked me what this all means regarding the NAFTA agreement, but I have yet to come to any conclusion, nor do I know if others more closely associated with the issues have . I can only say that much about the current situation is under continued scrutiny.
U.S. queen performance in France was also addressed by Mr. Vienne I have already described one such conversation here , February 22, 1977, where queens were thought to be prone to American foul brood, presumably due to the a reliance on antibiotic treatment. Queens imported by Mr. Vienne from the U.S. have not performed well. They do not adapt their egg-laying to the honey flows here, he says, and continue to produce larger populations when conditions are not optimum. I have noted an almost complete absence of yellow bees here. Calling the few I’ve seen “Italians,” as I am wont to do, is a misnomer it seems as the pure Apis mellifera ligustica are in fact quite dark I have been told. The yellow color I remember has come under attack as a sign of too much inbreeding in the U.S. This has been used as an argument that new stock should be introduced. I do know one thing; finding dark queens here in France is much more difficult for me than finding the yellow colored ones routinely encountered in the U.S.
The Ile d’Yeu at first glance would seem to be a beekeeper’s paradise. This has not been lost on others who have brought in hives from the mainland, much to Mr. Vienne’s dismay, and with them the Varroa mite’s arrival seems inevitable. Actually, being mite free in a world otherwise full of Varroa may not be in the best interests of any breeder nowadays, as it can result in a bee that is more susceptible to parasitism. Mites, nevertheless, are not the most potentially troublesome problem on the island. That is reserved for the numerous insectivorous martinets (Apus apus) and swallows that can be seen swooping low over Mr. Vienne’s mating yard gobbling up the fat, gray drones and queens as they try to couple in midair.
These birds can eat a lot of bees, according to Mr. Vienne, and their population seems to increase each year. He has dissected several and found them full of drones and queens, but not workers. Research done in Algeria shows that honey bees are not the preferred food of these birds. However, the problem seems to be that alternative food insects (pheidole wasps in Algeria) are not present in sufficient numbers to keep honey bees off the menu. The smallness of the island and its isolation, those things that make it so ideal for bee breeding, also mean a limited food base for the birds. They are protected species making shooting them out of the question. The draining and clearing of what little wild habitat remains on the island also reduces the insect population. Mr. Vienne has tried everything to solve this problem. He has communicated with researchers around the world for ideas, but come up empty handed so far. One wild idea would be to raise a more preferred insect for the birds, providing an alternative diet. I suggested keeping mating nuclei in forested areas, but Mr. Vienne said he already had tried that and as soon as the bees made any altitude above the trees, they were easy targets.