Raise your own: beekeeping in France


How about raising your own bees.  France actively encourages it.  Our local hippy bio farmer lives amidst his various bio crops at the edge of the village.  When I went to pick up my weekly basket of his latest fruit and veg he said he was looking for a beekeeper to put some hives at the end of his field by the trees.  He cultivates strips of artichokes, strawberries, potatoes, beans, raspberries, lettuces, various species of cabbages, and more, depending on the season, using the Living Soil method (Sol Vivant) and wants his crops pollinated. He is also very fond of honey.

The French Ministry of Agriculture last week published a news release recommending newly updated methods to develop biodiversity, including advice for amateur beekeepers and new ways of improving beekeeping skills.  The French sustainable bee-keeping plan, set up in 2013, has been extended through 2017.

Within this initiative, a list of plants attractive to bees and pollinators (plants which produce substances that can be collected by insects and turned into honey are called ‘melliferous’) has been drawn up by the Institut de l’abeille (Itsap), FranceAgri Mer, the Institut national de la recherche agronomique (Inra) and the Société Nationale de l’Horticulture Française (SNHF) ; this list will be used within the framework of France’s Agro-Ecological Plan.  When it comes to bees, the Plan aims to:

Two hundred ‘bee schools’ (‘ruchers écoles’) around France, managed by the French Agriculture Ministry, Itsap and FranceAgriMer, are set to offer training courses for those wishing to become either amateur or professional

The melliferous dandelion. (Plants and flowers which produce substances that can be collected by insects and turned into honey are called ‘melliferous’)

bee-keepers, with parallel courses on developments in the bee-keeping industry.  More in-depth courses on innovative methods will be available for those already working professionally in the sector.  Specialized certificates will be introduced as of September 2017: an “Apiculture” (Beekeeping) certificate (600 hours of training); a “certi-api” will be formalized for amateur beekeepers (60 hours of training).

An online training course called “abeilles et environnement” (bees and the environment) is being developed by the Institut agronomique, vétérinaire et forestier de France (Agreenium), in partnership with la recherche, l’enseignement supérieur et l’enseignement technique.

The melliferous white clover. Source: Wikipedia

France’s outgoing government has been determined to streamline efforts to improve bee health.  The Minister for agriculture emphasizes the need for an empirical strategy where all sectors should be involved – agriculture, environment, economy, farming and more – to valorize to the maximum all products involved.

Help the bees get through winter

Studies on an international level are ongoing to understand and solve the problem of winter losses.  A “Monitoring” study group of the international network Coloss Honey Bee Research Association has published figures showing where and why winter losses are happening.  29 countries participated in 2015-2016.  They found that more winter losses occur in small colonies as opposed to middle-sized and large ones.  Most deaths were due to

  • inappropriate treatment against the mortal Varroa Destructor disease. (A beekeeper in the Lot et Garonne region lost 6 million bees during the winter 2015-2016, claiming that it was due to the bio product they used to combat the Varroa Destructor virus – see article in LADEPECHE.fr );
  • the presence of young queens in the winter hive, and
  • environmental factors (such as lack of availability of pollen producing flowers before the winter season).
Romée van der Zee of the COLOSS Core project for colony losses monitoring says: “Spring and early summer (March-July) were cold in Norway, Scotland, Sweden, Denmark and Ireland, with mean temperatures ranging from 12.8 – 14.4 °C. This may have had negative effects on colony development, resulting in both relatively high numbers of dead colonies and unsolvable queen problems after winter. A more detailed analysis may reveal the effects of other important factors, such as the role of the honey bee parasite Varroa Destructor.” Source Coloss honey bee research association.

More participation in the annual monitoring project is encouraged (only 1% of French beekeepers participated in the latest one, via the Itsap Instiutut de l’Abeille).  Preliminary results of the 2015/2016 winter research by Coloss can be found here.

The Itsap Instiutut de l’Abeille published last month an in-depth specialist review /field study on the optimum environments prior to winter for bee health in order to improved survival rates through winter.  This serious review was carried out over a two year period in the Beauce Plaine – France’s wheat-bowl south of Paris.  Climate, geographical positioning, winds and other environmental factors were taken into consideration.  They were able to actually pinpoint the one day which was the optimum time for bees to collect the best pollen, and thus could calculate when exactly (in October) to make available melliferous inter-culture cover crops such as clover and mustard before the onset of winter.  (Cover crops are planted to keep soil from eroding, to stop nutrients from leaching, and to prevent weeds taking over, as during the winter). With such melliferous cover crops the bees would be well fed to brave the ravages of winter and disease.

Mustard, a melliferous cover crop.
Bee wise: old honey bees do not lose their senses

As an aside,it is interesting to note that the honey bee is emerging as a novel model organism for age-related changes in brain function. A study on winter bees published in 2010 by Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience Experts concludes that old bees do not necessarily lose their memory; extremely old, winter bees could still smell, feel and touch, which is in sharp contrast to many vertebrates and some other insect species.  Thus the honey bee has the potential of serving as a new model organism for studying mechanisms preventing the ageing brain from senility, ‘cognitive senescence’. 

Perhaps we should all be paying more attention to bees…

See also : To Bee or Not to Bee

For more facts and statistics on honey bee deaths and diseases world-wide, click here.


Comments: 6 replies added

  1. Doug Conner December 22, 2017

    I’m an American citizen, semi-retired, looking to buy land in France and grow bio-diverse crops and raise bees. I have no experience. I’m interested in training courses, but I don’t don’t speak French. AM I ELIGIBLE FOR GRANTS?

  2. ajh December 23, 2017

    Hi Doug, My very first advice would be start learning French now! Or if not, find a business partner who is either French or speaks good French. The agricultural community in France does not speak English. Nor do most of the aid-giving agencies, nor are the courses offered in another language. Advice and financial aid is available for farmers from several different French administrative bodies to which you could apply – I’ve mentioned some of them in my article on Bio farming - see Bio-Boom in France (for more, just to a word search for bio in the search icon). As for loans - as opposed to aid – it’s the banks and they have to be persuaded your enterprise will succeed. Le Credit Agricole would be your best bet. They’ll need proof of income and solvability. The banks are highly regulated under government control but reliable, although once you reach your mid-sixties it will become less easy to get a loan. Biofarming is a fast-changing sector over here. It is definitely the sector to go into, but support and the amount of financial aid offered varies according to which Region you will be in. Some Regions are more generous in aid than others, so you’ll have to check that out. And then laws and infrastructure governing the aid are not just complex, they are also constantly changing. For example aid is available to actually set up in bio-farming, but it is no longer available to help you maintain the activity (up until recently, a bio-farming maintenance aid was on offer for several years after you’d set up). So the hard bit – but certainly not insurmountable – is dealing with all the administration necessary to get access to aid, and for that you need good French! You’ll also need to find out how to go about declaring your activity to the French authorities so as to take into account the fiscal implications. I hope this helps. And I hope you manage it, this is a wonderful country to live in.

  3. Patricia Cresswell April 8, 2018

    I need help urgently and do not speak French . We have bees in the loft in the stonework . They only arrived a couple of days ago and I think it is a small group .

  4. ajh April 8, 2018

    Hi there, yes you have to act quickly before they spread out into other parts of the house, chimneys, etc. You should contact a local beekeeper if you have one, but otherewise there is an inexhaustive list of beekeepers around France (and Belgium) which you can find at this website: abeille.gudule.org. and you'll hopefully find a beekeeper in your area to contact (the website says that most amateur beekeepers will do this for free). Another website is: https://apiculteurs.info/liste. Otherwise may be an idea to ask your local Mairie/Mayor.they might know of someone. The Sapeurs Pompiers (Fire brigade) no longer like dealing with bees. Take a photo of them so that whoever is willing to come and deal with the problem know what they are dealing with, what kind of bee it is - some bees are protected, and it's easier to dislodge without killing them if you catch the problem early. Good luck.

  5. Walter May 23, 2018

    It's interesting to see how on one hand they run programs like this but on the other hand they make it an administrative hassle to keep bees and they have some of the more restrictive regulation in Europe (distance from roads, registration of hives, etc). Unless of course I've missed something and those rules have become more lenient. If not then, within the EU, it makes a lot more sense for commercial beekeepers to choose other countries where legislation is less restrictive.

  6. ajh May 23, 2018

    Indeed, this has been the case - some French farmers have turned to Ukraine in order to escape EU regulations and are using chemicals there which are banned in the EU - and impoverishing the soil there (see article ‘Farmers to the rescue’), something which in Europe we have been through and have learnt the sorry lesson, hence we now have regulations. Regulations are restrictive because they are there to protect bio-diversity, improve the soil we've impoverished, protect the environment on which we depend for food safety, and to protect individuals who live nearby. Advice and financial aid is readily available and on hand here, so it’s not so daunting setting up. Questions of ethics arise when escaping regulations - rules aren't there for nothing, international scientists agree that certain practices such as using specific chemicals, are dangerous for the environment. Speaking of aid: existing aid packages are often not claimed - e.g. the European Commission offers financial aid on top of national aid but some people don’t think to ask for it (see article on ‘Water, what are you drinking’). Setting up really is no big deal once you've learnt the administrative processes (for which there is help on hand) – and surely it’s humanely more satisfying to set up a business which is for everyone’s gain, and not just one’s own.

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