France's best honey: from the Paris rooftops?

PARIS — Parisians and tourists enjoying a meal at one of the restaurants in the famous “Fauchon” gourmet shop in central Paris might be surprised at the freshness of the honey served with their tea and other meals.

It is fresh and delicious because it comes from the roof of the nearby Paris Opera.

The beehives atop of the Opéra Garnier are just one of an increasing set of hives sprouting atop roofs around Paris in an effort to save bees, their honey, and their impact on our food and environment.

The Opera beehives belong to Jean Paucton, 77, who still likes to climb up to the rooftop of the Opéra in the center of Paris to visit his bees. “Paris is perfect for them,” Paucton explained. “The average temperature during the year is 13 [degrees Celsius, 55 degrees Fahrenheit] and there are lots of gardens: the Tuileries, the Luxembourg Gardens, La Villette basin, the Bois de Boulogne…”

Paucton was not always a beekeeper. He used to be an Opéra props man. It was then that he bought his first beehive, and put it on the balcony of his Parisian apartment. But his neighbors were not too happy. “People are afraid of bees but they are actually quite nice,” Pauchton said. A friend of his told him to put the hive on the roof of the Opéra so that the bees would not bother anyone anymore.

He did so, and a few weeks later, a friend of a friend came up to take a picture of the beehive. “It turned out it was the famous French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertand!” Pauchton laughed. “The photo was published in the French magazine Paris Match.”

Paucton’s rooftop bee-keeping idea has become a trend and now beehives are located all over Paris. They have taken up residence on the roof of the newly renovated Grand Palais on the Champs Elysée, the brainstorm of beekeeper Nicolas Géant.

“I went to the team of the Grand Palais with the project and they were enthusiastic,” recalled young man. Géant owns a shop where he sells beehives other Parisians. “Urban beekeeping is the future of apiculture,” he said. “Most of the beekeepers have taken their hives back to the city because they realized bees were dying 30 percent more in the countryside.”

It may seem paradoxical but pollution in the countryside is more toxic to bees than in the cities, especially in Paris. “For 10 years now, the city of Paris has banned all the chemical products from its gardens,” Géant explained.

As beekeepers, both Nicolas Géant and Paucton are well aware of the damage caused to the bees by chemical products. They try to increase the public’s awareness of their disappearance and its consequences by organizing visits of their beehives. “My goal is, and always will be, to make people understand that bees are essential to human beings.” Géant said.

The National Union of French Apiculture (UNAF) reported recently that 35 percent of food and 65 percent of its diversity directly depend on bees’ pollination. The latest data released by the organization is however not optimistic. Since 1995, 30 percent of bee colonies have been disappearing every year.

Over the past 10 years, 15,000 professional beekeepers have been forced to stop their activity. The project entitled “The bee: Environment sentinel” launched in December 2005, proved that the future of beekeeping is urban apiculture. Beehives have been placed in various French cities to preserve beekeeping and to educate people, including children, who come visit the bees.

Still, there is a tendency to think that the honey made in the city cannot be as good as that harvested in the countryside.

“They’re wrong!” Géant said. “It’s the opposite!” Analyses made on the honey of the Grand Palais showed that there were traces of dandelions in last year’s harvest. “There are lime trees, chestnuts, acacias in Paris. It’s a diversity you can’t find anywhere else,” Jean Paucton added. In the countryside, the honey is made of only one species because of single-crop farming. That is why the honey of the Opéra is known for its flavor.

The price of that taste is a bit more than $18 for barely a quarter of a pound. In other words: very expensive. Erica, a young blond girl from Sweden and a customer in the famous “Fauchon” restaurant, is attracted to the tiny jars with home-made labels reading “Harvested from the roof of the Paris Opera.” Erica is sold: “It’s very Parisian, right? It will make a great gift!”

The first harvest of the Grand Palais honey, on the contrary, was given to the museum’s employees and to journalists. But he 2010 harvest will be the first to be sold at the museum’s boutique. “The earnings will exclusively go to the Grand Palais,” Géant said.

Back at the Fauchon shop, Anthony, the manager, explained that sometimes people come just for the honey of the Opéra. “They know exactly what they want,” he said.

And rooftop beekeeping is expanding. Géant recently placed beehives on the roof of the fashionable Louis Vuitton boutique on the Champs Elysées and will place a few others on the top of a tower in La Défense later this year.

Paris may be soon known for its honey and bees as well as for its “blinding lights.” At least at Fauchon, Mary from Ohio knows exactly what she wants: honey “made in Paris.”