Total self-sufficiency is unattainable for most of us; it takes an enormous amount of skill, time and energy. On the other hand, anyone can move in that general direction. As we head towards summer, the buzzing of bees inspires dreams of making honey at home
Keeping bees has many benefits – they pollinate gardens, dramatically increasing yields, as well as producing honey, beeswax and royal jelly. In France this work ethic has earned them the nickname of ‘God’s little servants’.
Before installing a beehive, ask at the mairie about local regulations – some communes have strict rules about how close to neighbouring property and roads you can site a hive.
Next, consider enrolling on a beekeeping course (stage apiculture). Although the general principles are straightforward, the devil is often in the detail; if bees are unhappy, they will decamp. You need to know what you are doing. The Union Nationale de l’Apiculture Française (www.unaf-apiculture.info) runs twice-yearly courses for beginners, priced €150.
Many local associations and clubs also offer courses, which will put you in touch with other beekeepers in your area.
You will need to make an online declaration to the Direction des Services Vétérinaires when you set up your hive, and then annually between September 1 and December 31. It is also worth getting advice about civil liability insurance.
When it comes to purchasing equipment (protective clothing, hives, bee smoker, jars, etc), get local advice about buying second-hand. It could be tempting to save money by adopting a ‘found’ swarm of bees rather than buying one, but this might be a mistake as it is impossible to know the age of the queen bee or the general health of a found swarm. As a begin ner, it is often better to buy a swarm (around €60) from an experienced beekeeper who will advise you on their care. Find one by searching online for ‘vente d’essaims d’abeilles’.
Beehives (ruches) cost around €150 and should be sited at least one metre apart, preferably facing south and in a sheltered spot. Make sure branches cannot tap on the hive in the wind, as this can frighten the bees.
You can keep up to 10 productive beehives without having to declare them; empty hives or those used for producing swarms do not count. Once you have 11 or more productive hives, they should be declared for tax purposes via the micro-bénéfice agricole scheme. It is advised to start with three to four hives.
Summer months are a hive of activity
The Connexion is following the progress of David and Teresa Clay this year as they move their B&B in Gascony towards self-sufficiency step by step. Tell us about your experiences via email@example.com
While keeping bees is not an immediate priority for the Clays, David says “it’s one of the things that we’d very much like to do at some stage.
“We’ve got so much else to do to lay the foundations for self-sufficiency first. And it’d make sense to wait for the trees in the orchard to fill out before putting a hive or two in there. The bees will be more covered then – they like a bit of shade.
“We’re fortunate in that there are quite a few apiarists living near us, including a chap who runs a course in beekeeping.
“In the meantime, we’re doing everything we can to attract bees to the garden. We have areas of long grass and let wild flowers grow, and we’ve got a hedge most of the way around the garden, which is full of flowering shrubs.
As summer gets under way, their garden is burgeoning. “It’s as much as we can do to keep up with harvesting (peas, broad beans), general maintenance (tying in tomatoes) and keeping on top of weeds,” says David.
“Canes for climbing beans have been put up and are being clothed by foliage – you can understand how Jack and the beanstalk came about. By now, all the fruit trees have flowered too and their fruit is visibly developing.”
While it may be another month or so before this can be picked, another crop is keeping the Clays busy. Green walnuts are traditionally harvested on the feast of Saint John (June 24) in their area. They can be made into jam, thanks to a recipe the Clays found in a book by a local author. Unfortunately last year’s results were not altogether successful.
“It was absolutely vile,” says David, “very astringent. We’ve saved some of the syrup though and think it might be a good flavouring for ice cream this year.”
They will also be making soap for the summer’s B&B guests. “This is not a particularly self-sufficient practice as we need to buy in the oil and lye, but we will be experimenting with using our home-grown herbs for scent and dandelions for their colour.”