Birney Imes: To Paris and back on the wings of a honeybee

January 21, 2012 8:20:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


Don't know if you would go as far as to call it one more harbinger of spring, but Thursday I found myself standing in front of a civic club fielding a torrent of questions about beekeeping.


I'm told we're in for a short, mild winter. The bees are flying on these warm, sunny days of January -- they're called cleansing flights -- and they are returning to their hives with granules of pollen stuck to their legs. The balmy days and nights have coaxed bulbs to send up shoots from their underground lairs. I hope they are able to withstand the freezes sure to come.


For my presentation, I arrived with a PowerPoint projector, a hive (empty), a printout titled "20 Amazing Honey Bee Facts" and the April 17, 2003, issue of "Country Life," an English magazine the late Hortense Gholson gave me some years ago.



This was an easy group to speak to, small and friendly. One thing I really like about the Exchange Club is how after they have a blessing and Pledge of Allegiance, everyone goes around the room and greets every other member of the club. Chaotic for sure, but all the meeting and greeting seems to foster a refreshing spirit of good-will among members.


After talking a bit, I read from Hortense's magazine. The article on beekeeping, "Hi Honey, I'm Home," features a picture of a resolute-looking fellow wearing a bespoke suit of plaid wool, tattersall shirt with tie and bee veil standing with his hand on a hive. (No one does it quite like the British.)


He is Lord Kingsdown, a former governor of the Bank of England, who the article reports "is the grandson of a keen beekeeper and has kept them himself ever since his war-time boyhood at Torry Hill, his estate in Kent."


About the bees Lord Kingsdown has the following to say: "I don't know quite what the magic is but I think bees really can respond to you in the way an animal does. ... I had a period in my life when I was thought to be exceptionally eccentric as I kept two hives on the roof outside my flat in the Bank of England. I would spend half an hour out there at the end of the day as relaxation before going out to an evening engagement."


Perhaps Lord Kingsdown knew of Jean Pacheon, who for 25 years or so has kept bees on the roof of the Paris Opera House. Pacheon, who worked as a prop man for the opera house, was in the middle of a move to the country and needed a place to store a recently acquired beehive. He was granted permission to store it temporarily on the roof. When it came time to collect it, he found healthy and productive bees happily making honey. He's been tending bees up there since. The honey produced by Pacheon's rooftop bees is sold in the opera house gift shop.


Reportedly, there are 300 beehives in the City of Light. If you lived in Paris and wanted to learn beekeeping, you could do as Pacheon did, attend The Beekeeping School (Rucher Ecole) in Luxembourg Gardens. The school has been in existence since 1856.


Not to dwell on Paris and its honey, but if you happen to be in that lovely city and have an interest in beekeeping, you might book a room at a small three-star hotel on the Left Bank, the Eiffel Park Hotel, which also has hives on its roof and serves its own honey with breakfast.


Another item of interest in Hortense's magazine is the Domesday Book, the result of an 11th century undertaking commissioned by England's King William to inventory for taxing purposes all the land and improvements of England, such as it was in 1086. Beehives appear frequently in this ancient tome. In a place called Pentelauua we find an accounting for "Ralph Baynard, formerly a free woman. Mill, 8 beehives, 3 cobs, 24 cattle." I'd like to know what "formerly a free woman" means. A cob can be "a powerfully built, short-legged horse," "a male swan" or "a roundish lump of coal."


In our backyard I can report no cobs or cattle, but we do have three beehives, whose inhabitants, like the fellow who tends them, scan the landscape each morning for fresh signs of the approaching spring.



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.