French Beekeeping - 'La Différence'
Last month I was fortunate to spend a day with French beekeeper, Raymond.
He shared with me an insight into what beekeeping is like on the outskirts of Bélesta, a small village in the foothills of the South Pyrenees. Many discoveries were surprising, and certainly very interesting.
Amongst his other jobs (which I will explain more about later), Raymond managed 25 Langstroth hives and five nucleus boxes that he split earlier in the year.
Raymond had just returned from the hills with five of his hives. He explained that the local rosemary flowering was poor, so he had decided to return them to his main apiary site. You can also see that Raymond uses an old poultry drinker with rocks in it, as an effective source of water
The apiary was fully fenced to protect his hives from wild boars (sanglier) and badgers. His beekeepers 'registration plate' was hung on the fence to clearly indicate whose bees they were. This is a National requirement in France.
Asian hornets were commonplace, which drove home to me the importance of vigilance back here in the UK. Here shows the remains of an old nest from 2021.
I was very impressed with Raymond's detailed knowledge of all the wild local flora such as thyme, rosemary, broom, orchid, and many more. Lavender was prolific, when I explained that, 'we call this French Lavender in England!', Raymond laughed and explained that he had never heard of that before. We managed to communicate through my very poor French language, along with Raymond's elaborate French mannerisms!
It seemed that any reasonable flat piece of land was cultivated for the use of vineyards, lavender fields, and almond groves. These are Raymond's almond trees. You can just make out a wasp and insect trap on each tree, made from old water bottles. Clearly no insecticides are used here!
Raymond explained that he had two kinds of bee. They were both a local strain. He called them his 'Yellow bees’, which he explains originate from our 'Buckfast' bees, and his local 'Black bees’. Raymond always rears his own Queens.
To my amazement, the average yields are the same as what I would expect to get here in the UK, despite the mild climate combined with copious amounts of unspoilt countryside.
Raymond would expect to harvest an average of between one and three shallow Langstroth supers per hive per year. Last year however, Raymond animated the fact that he had harvested ZERO HONEY! He put this down to the fact of having long spells of dry, then wet, then cold spells. I was thinking to myself, 'mmm that sounds very familiar'.
On the positive side, Raymond hardly has to feed his bees anything in the Autumn, due to their traditionally short and mild Winter season.
Raymond's Truffle Orchard (le verger truffier)
Nestled in a Private location, Raymond shows me his 3000 young oak trees that he planted himself 15 years ago. They were all specially treated with the 'Truffle spore' before Raymond painstakingly planted each one. I am told that Raymond's own little dog does the job of sniffing them out and digging them up!
Having experienced a long career as a Chef in a previous life I was a little excited, knowing that the price of a pound of fresh Truffles can cost up to £1000!
Raymond explains that Truffles are called 'Black diamonds' for a reason. That reason being that only 2 to 3% of his oak trees actually produce truffles for him, and his total truffle harvest was just1kg for the whole of last year!
Having had a fascinating, enlightening, relaxing and very enjoyable day with Raymond, I found him to be one of the happiest, relaxed and content men that I have had the privilege to meet. But I would somehow totally expect this, living in what some people could describe as a little piece of French paradise. But if an easy life is what you are searching for, I'm afraid this might not be for you.