With all the media attention in the last week about blue honey – for those of you who missed it, bee-keepers in the northeast of France were shocked to discover that the honey in their hives had taken on the very un-natural hues of blue and green. And though it might seem like the opening of a futuristic horror movie, it turned out that the bees, instead of partaking of natures’s store of blossoms and wild flowers, had instead been lapping up waste from the local M&M factory! Lazy bees! From this
Scientist have deduced that bees prefer, blue and green M&Ms to yellow and red ones, we can see the immediate affect that the environment has on the fragile bee colonies that are endangered around the World, and which is in fact the real horror story!
Walking past the different varieties of honey for sale at my weekly market, miel de Chateigniers, Miel aux toutes fleurs, miel de lavendes etc. I would often ask myself, how does the beekeeper know which flowers the bees have got their nectar from? It was a question that had bothered me for a while and I decided to go and visit an apiary, or bee-keeping farm nearby to find out the answer.
Outside St Remy, on the road to Cavaillan are the honey producers M et Mme et fils Brun. It was fils Brun (son of Brun) who came out when I rang the bell and who agreed to show me around the large modern barn next to the family mas (farmhouse) where the honey processing takes place.
It didn’t take long for me to get the answer to my question. Fils Brun explained to me that rather than letting the bees buzz around the countryside randomly dipping their proboscis into any flower they fancy (as I imagined they did) he and his father transport the beehives to locations when specific flowers are in bloom. So for instance in July they take the bees to the lavender fields below Mont Ventoux when the lavender is in bloom, or to the Camargue when the blackberrys are in flower, or to the Garrigue, the hills nearby which are covered in scrub when the wild thyme, rosemary and sage is blossoming. The hives are moved between 3 and 4 times a year and are transported at night under the cover of darkness so as not to stress the bees.
This wasn’t always the case, Fils Brun tells me, up until the 1960’s the transhumance, as it is called, (moving of livestock from one area to another) was not necessary, due to the many flowers growing in the Saint Remy area, but now the land is mainly used to cultivate vegetables, everywhere you look there are rows of poly-tunnels and farmers are cutting down their fruit orchards as fruit is grown more cheaply elsewhere. Since the 1970’s they have also had the added problem of pesticides that are used on the crops around their farm. M. Brun tells me a story of how a neighbour of his decided one year to spray all his apple trees with insecticides as his daughter was getting married and they didn’t want any mosquitoes to ruin the wedding party; they got rid of the mosquitoes but also killed all M.Brun’s bees in the process. Now the Bruns take their hives to national parks or farms which they know are pesticide free.
The majority of French honey is produced from rape and sunflower crops, but the most sought after honey is the single blossom kind that M. Brun produces; the premier cru so to speak. Honey production has been in the Brun family for many generations and in the visitors room in the barn there are beehives, or ruches as they are called in French, that date back to the 1880s when their forefather Étienne Brun was collecting honey. At that time each region had its own style of beehive and the one on show was made with wood, straw, lime and earth.
In earlier times the beehives had to be destroyed to extract the honey and the bee colony was killed along with the queen and her larvae. This meant that a new swarm had to be found in the spring and was not a very satisfactory system. This all changed in the middle of the 19th century when the moveable honeycomb was invented.
This revolutionised beekeeping and was the basis of the beehives that are used today which are made of wood and contain ‘drawers’ of empty frames in which the bees build their honeycombs. Once the frames are filled with honey they are taken from the hives and put into a centrifugal machine which extracts the honey from the wax.
The empty frames are then put back into the hive for the bees to replenish. In late September, early October, only the bottom layer of the frames are put back into the hive and the honeycombs are left intact to sustain the bees during the winter months.
After the honey has been extracted from the comb, it is filtered twice and is decanted into large drums where it is left for 2 to 3 months to settle and is then siphoned into jars ready to sell.
As I leave and thank Fils Brun for his time and for helping me to clarify the answer to my question, he gives me a jar of honey collected from the wild flowers in Les Alpilles and says ‘you can also tell which plant the bees have got their nectar from by the taste, colour and smell of the honey, just like wine’.
Grand Draille Nord, La Galine le rucher des Alpilles,
13210 St Remy de Provence
Tel (0033) 490922888
For further reading on the blue honey phenomenon
And on French honey