From the rooftops of the 7th to the city’s ancient catacombs, discover how Parisian Apiculteur Audric de Campeau transformed his passion into liquid gold. A story in three parts…
Part I: The Honey
A zinc-covered rooftop with front-row views of the Eiffel Tower, a grassy moat at the foot of Louis XIV’s golden church dome, and an immaculately-maintained section of hidden tunnels in the city’s historic catacombs…Paris is full of glamorous and mysterious places to visit. But Audric is here to work. And the least glamorous aspect of his job involves hauling heavy wooden boxes full of precious cargo up and down staircases older than the French Revolution. “There are no elevators here,” says the tall 31-year-old as we climb several flights of rickety wooden stairs past red “Attention Abeilles” signs, eventually coming to an even less convincing wooden ladder. And no lights. I pause with my hands tightly gripping the spindly, wrought iron railing while Audric pops open the hatch, letting in the bright December sunlight. Before my eyes have a chance to adjust, Philou barges past me and up the ladder. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d witness the age-defying dexterity of Audric’s feisty, 10-year-old beagle. By the time I hauled myself onto the zinc-covered rooftop, he had already claimed his spot in the sun where he would wait patiently for his master. Audric de Campeau is an apiculteur, or beekeeper, who sells high-end honey through his company Miel de Paris. He has about 30 hives in the city of Paris, mostly on the rooftops of the 7th arrondissement where he grew up. The three we’re visiting on an unseasonably warm December day are on one of the rooftop turrets of the Ecole Militaire, the prestigious 18th-century military academy facing the Eiffel Tower. While Audric carefully attends to his hives I shamelessly take photos of the magnificent view.
How can bees survive in the big city?
When I first heard about the beehives on the rooftop of the Palais Garnier I thought it was more of a gimmick than a good idea. There was much press fanfare each season when the expensive little jars of Parisian Honey were sold in the opera’s gift shop, and honey from the northern Parisian suburbs was dubbed “Miel de Béton” (concrete honey) by journalists. But urban beekeeping is nothing new in Paris; the hives at the beekeeping school in Luxembourg Gardens date back to 1856. They first arrived at the opera house in 1985 when a now-retired set designer needed a safe spot to temporarily keep his newly-purchased beehives before transporting them to his country house. He was surprised a month later to find them already filled with honey, and decided to leave them there.
But what about the pollution?
Despite popular belief, bees are actually quite happy in the city. Even happier than they are in the countryside around Paris. First, there are no pesticides or fertilizers to harm the bees. Second, there’s a much bigger diversity of flowering trees and plants in Paris for them to enjoy, compared to the vast monoculture fields in the countryside. Third, the warmer temperatures in the city mean the flowering season lasts longer, so the bees produce more honey. In fact, these busy bees consistently produce three to five times more honey than their country cousins. And when bees are happy, they stay in their hive. In the countryside, professional beekeepers have been struggling to maintain their bee populations, losing up to half of their hives each year due to a worldwide phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), while urban beekeepers report losing less than 5%, if any. Of course there’s still pollution in the city, which is probably why most people didn’t think much of the Paris honey until lab tests revealed it actually had fewer impurities than traditional honey made in the countryside, the bees’ bodies acting like filters for the lead and diesel fumes. “There are traces of pollution in the beeswax, but the honey itself is four times more pure than honey from the countryside thanks to the absence of pesticides. So that’s good news,” says Audric. Not only is the honey more pure than what you normally find on supermarket shelves, the carbon footprint is almost nonexistent because it’s produced, packaged and sold right here in the city.
Audric catches me checking the recorder. Although he moves in a calm, controlled manner, he talks in mile-a-minute in rapid-fire French, so I can’t rely just on my notes. “Talking to a beekeeper is like talking to a winemaker,” he jokes. “We can talk all night long so you have to stop and ask questions or I’ll just keep going.”
Okay, what about the taste? It can’t possibly be any good, can it?
“Honey produced in Paris is unlike anywhere else,” says Audric, barely able to contain his enthusiasm. “The combination of red fruit, lychee, citrus, and menthol notes is the signature of Parisian honey. It’s so recognizable you can’t fake it or dilute it with other honey.” And not just because they get to feed on the magnificent floral displays in the city’s many gardens. Urban bees get most of their food from the flowering trees. Unlike honey produced in lavender fields or in the mountains, Paris has an amazing variety of local and exotic trees such as chestnuts, silver limes, acacias, and Japanese sophoras. There are also herb and botanical gardens, rooftop gardens and, in a pinch, the flowering window boxes on almost every residential building. “It’s not just marketing blabber,” he insists. “I’ve worked with many great Parisian chefs who use my honey because it’s an exceptional product.”
When Audric has finished fussing over his bees, he graciously poses for a photo with Philou before we pack up and head off to visit the next group of hives. If you’re not afraid of heights (or bees), watch Audric’s GoPro video of the Ecole Militaire hives.
Part II: The Hound & the Hare
One of the Ecole Militaire’s illustrious graduates was none other than Napoléon Bonaparte. He chose the bee – signifying immortality and resurrection – as one of the symbols of his new French empire, born from the ashes of the Ancien Régime. We drive a few streets over to Les Invalides, the 17th-century Museum of Military History originally commissioned by Louis XIV to shelter his veteran soldiers. It’s here, beneath the stunning gold church dome, where the Emperor’s ashes are entombed in marble, while his bronze statue keeps watch over the Cour d’Honneur. Audric has eight more hives in the grassy moat surrounding the compound, and as we make our way down the stone steps to check on them, I can’t help but imagine the Little Corporal would approve of the bee barracks at his old stomping grounds.
Another Side Effect of Global Warming
Although he might not have appreciated disorderly conduct in the ranks. “That’s not good,” says Audric when he sees his bees happily buzzing around the aged wooden box hives. “They should be hibernating, it’s too warm.” Indeed, even the trees on the Champ de Mars had little green buds on them, as if spring arrived four months early. And like unruly teenagers up past their bedtime, his bees had the munchies. Since there are no flowers in December, he’s brought them a snack to keep them from eating all of the honey. “Bee food?” I ask as he places a large sugar pack under the lid of one hive, replacing the one they’ve already finished. “See, they are very hungry.” I get close enough to have a peek, but a glimpse of the thousands of bees busily moving around in their hive makes me jump back involuntarily. I’m not the only one who gets spooked.
Philou: Part Beagle, Part Greyhound
There is actually a considerable population of rabbits living on the grounds of Les Invalides. One of them hiding behind the hives decides to make his move, shooting out from beneath the wooden box and beelining down the grassy moat. In a flash Philou was in hot pursuit, and before we could react they turned the corner towards the front gate, no doubt offering up an unforgettable sight to the tourists taking selfies in front of Les Invalides. Audric was worried Philou would chase the rabbit into the busy street, but luckily the pair reappeared within seconds, and after the terrified hare zipped past us he was able to snag his spry beagle, thus ending this article’s chase scene. “It happened so fast, I wish I’d taken a video!” said Audric, echoing my thoughts (#journalistfail).
The Origins of an Urban Beekeeper
While he finishes fussing over his bees, placing more sugar packets in the hives, I was assigned dog duty holding the leash. One of the hives is particularly agitated, and Audric warns us to stand back. As predicted, he gets stung in the neck by a kamikaze bee, but he barely flinches, and carefully replaces the lid. “I’ve been stung far worse, before I knew what I was doing,” he says. Audric clearly knows what he’s doing now. Although he’s just 31 years old, he began amateur beekeeping at a young age at his parents’ country house in the Champagne region, a self-taught gentleman farmer who tended grape vines and a small orchard, producing his own organic bubbly when most teens his age were playing video games. “I don’t come from a family of apiculturists,” he says. “My father is actually allergic to bee stings, so I really had to convince them to let me have my own hives.” While studying philosophy at the university in Paris he heard about the hives at the opera house and thought, “Why not me?”
Finding a Parisian home for his hives required more persistence and determination, but he was able to convince those in charge of the Ecole Militaire to let him use their roof, and soon after he was able to place more hives here at Les Invalides as well as the rooftop of the Musée d’Orsay, La Monnaie de Paris (The Mint) and other locations in the 7th arrondissement where he grew up. It probably didn’t hurt that in 2005 the Paris-based National Apiculture Association ran a huge campaign to encourage beekeeping in cities, the largest such project in the world. Since then it has really taken off, with hundreds of amateur hives on the city’s rooftops and gardens. But could there be a downside to the urban beekeeping trend? After all, how many hives can peacefully coexist in the city? And, more to the point as I watch Audric readjust his face net after getting stung, is it safe to have so many bees flying around heavily-populated tourist areas?
The Dangers of Beekeeping in the City
“That’s a very good question, one I ask myself every day, and one I’ve asked other beekeepers. We know that in the 19th century there were 2000 hives in Paris, almost all which disappeared until it came back into fashion over the past 10-15 years. Today in Paris we have 400-500 hives declared, but there are probably closer to 700 because not all are publicly registered,” he explains. “But we never have a shortage of flowers here like in the countryside where there can be weeks when the fields have no flowers at all and hungry bees get aggressive and pillage other hives. We never have that problem in Paris.”
“As for the safety, that can become a concern, but only if we have too many irresponsible beekeepers.” He explains how experienced beekeepers know how to maintain their hives, to keep the bees happy, and to be ready to expand the hive by adding more shelves or boxes when the population outgrows its space. An overgrown or neglected hive where the swarm follows a younger queen in search of a new home might cause alarm by the general public if not quickly retrieved by the beekeeper. “If you’re lucky the fire department will notify you of a swarm before people panic,” although Audric stresses that honey bees are not generally aggressive, and a swarm always stocks up on several days’ supply of food before abandoning a hive, so they’re well-fed and relatively docile (what to do if you see a swarm). “But all it takes is one tourist getting stung by bees, even if they’re mistaking hornets for bees, to cause the press to go crazy and say the bees are too dangerous in the city. So you have to be serious. It’s a métier, managing a hive.” Currently they police themselves, careful not to place too many hives in one area as a precaution.
Audric’s Advice for Urban Beekeepers
If the idea of fresh honey has you dreaming of owning your own urban hive, Audric has a few important tips and recommendations.
“First, learn about beekeeping. Read everything you can, take classes, watch Youtube…” I laugh at this last one, but he’s serious. “You can learn a lot about beekeeping online! But I still made a lot of errors in the beginning,” he admits. “The thing about raising bees is that you pay for your mistakes immediately. My first year I opened a hive wearing shorts when there was a lot of wind and got fifteen stings on my legs. I don’t do that anymore.”
Second, “visit some hives to make sure you actually like bees and know firsthand what beekeeping actually involves.”
Third, say goodbye to long vacations. Beekeeping is a year-round responsibility. “People want to go away for a month in summer, but that’s like abandoning your dog on the side of the highway in August,” says Audric. One of the problems that can happen to an unattended hive is that they outgrow the space and leave in a swarm looking for a new home. “There’s no reason to be afraid, they’re not aggressive, but it can scare people,” he explains. “And if we have issues where tourists are stung, the authorities may decide bees in the city are too dangerous.”
Finally, be prepared to work! “The most important tool of a beekeeper is his back,” says Audric. “In the countryside the hives are usually on the ground, so the farmer can drive right up to them with a truck carrying all of the equipment.” In Paris you have to be prepared to carry boxes of bees and all of the equipment up the stairs, then hundreds of kilos of honey down the stairs, working in narrow or confined spaces, in all weather conditions. In 2013, after almost 30 years tending to his hives on the roof of the Palais Garnier, 77-year-old Jean Paucton was asked to retire his beekeeping activities, reportedly out of fears for his safety (another beekeeping association has taken his place). “I’m lucky, I always have a few friends willing to help out, especially when it’s harvest time,” says Audric, handing me a few items to carry back to the car with Philou.
Of course, there are rewards for your hard work: your own personal supply of some of the most expensive honey in the world (a 125g jar of Miel de Paris is currently selling at Le Bon Marché for €16.55), as well as the beeswax for making candles. But as I soon discover, there are many other things you can make with honey.
Part III: The Hydromel
This article ends in the Paris catacombs, but the story actually began there. A few weeks before joining Audric for a tour of his Parisian hives, I received a text message from a friend we have in common, David Brower, the “Sensorial Guy” who does special culinary cultural events in Paris. “Are you claustrophobic?” He asked if I wanted to tag along with him for a special French press event in the catacombs. I’ve discovered some of my favorite secrets of Paris through friends, and since I was still horribly jetlagged after returning from Phoenix I had nothing better to do that Monday morning. “As long as it’s legal and I don’t have to crawl along the floor in the dark, I’m in,” I wrote. “But I can’t promise I’ll write about it.” I had glanced over the press invitation David forwarded me, essentially a sleek marketing package for “Le Premier Hydromel de Paris dans les Catacombes” with professional photos of some guy in a straw boater hat doing the “serious wine tasting pose” with a glass of hydromel in the Paris Catacombs. I tried not to let my cynicism get the best of me, but the whole thing just seemed like another carefully orchestrated publicity stunt meant to impress foreign bloggers. But there’s only one way to find out.
Not Your Everyday Press Conference
The journalists were sworn to editorial silence on the hydromel until the day of the press conference, when we gathered at the RDV point outside a hospital in the 14th arrondissement on what seemed to be the only chilly morning that December. “Are we the only Americans?” I asked David when he arrived, not recognizing any of the other dozen or so writers huddling together trying to stay warm. “Not an expat blogger in sight, that’s a first.” Then, true to advertising, a tall, young Parisian in a straw boater hat with bee netting, green tweed jacket and dusty red trousers appeared with Philou the beagle at his heels, looking as if he was on his way to a summer picnic. He led our warmly-bundled group of now slightly skeptical-looking journalists through the maze of the hospital grounds, finally unlocking what looked like a janitor’s closet, and ushered us inside a small hallway.
“You might want to leave your coats up here,” says Audric, pointing to a coat rack. And as we descend the staircases 21m (69 feet) below ground, we slowly understand why. It’s warm and humid, like a greenhouse. “This section of the catacombs is maintained by a private historical society,” says Audric as we all admire how immaculately clean, carefully lit, and tastefully restored the tunnels are compared to what he calls the “underground Disneyland” of catacomb tunnels invaded by “cataphile tourists” who throw illegal parties and cover the walls in graffiti. He tends to use the word carrières (quarries), instead of catacombs, perhaps to insist on the distinction between the two. “Only members of the society can access these tunnels, and they don’t normally give tours,” he explains as we make our way past a well and carved stone columns. Some passages are discreetly blocked by these elderly historian-caretakers, understandably nervous about hosting a bunch of busybodies who snoop around for a living.
The Ancient Art of Hydromel Production
Audric gathers us around three small, wooden casks on a stone ledge stamped: “L’Hydromel de Paris” and begins recounting his long journey from amateur beekeeper to professional Parisian apiculteur. “You’re probably wondering when I’m going to mention the hydromel,” jokes Audric to his captive audience. Just over a year ago, looking for creative ways to expand his budding honey empire, he decided to tap into his winemaking experience by producing hydromel. This ancient alcoholic drink, known as mead in English, is made from fermented honey, water and yeast, and aged 8-12 months. Like wine, it can be sweet or dry, still or sparkling, depending on the sugar content and its age. Audric ages his exclusive, small-batch hydromel for a minimum of 12 months in oak casks formerly used to age Spanish Xérès sherry or red Burgundy wine. And now, after a year of toiling in secrecy, we were going to be the first to try his golden honey wine.
You can’t keep the French press waiting too long without food or alcohol, so Audric and his assistant pass around small cups of the hydromel, extracted from the casks using a long glass syringe, while answering questions. A veteran female journalist immediately asks the one that’s been on my mind, “Why here?” After all, he could just age them in any Parisian cellar, right?
Are the Catacombs just a marketing gimmick?
“It’s very important to have the perfect conditions if you want to age wine correctly, and hydromel is no different,” he begins. “This ancient quarry has a relatively stable temperature between 9°C-14°C throughout the year, 90% air humidity, complete darkness, no vibrations, and no odors.” Compare that to a typical Parisian cellar, dry and hot from heating pipes, vibrating from large trucks and the metro, and often full of all kinds of odors, not ideal for storing sensitive wooden casks. So how did he find out about this particular quarry tunnel and, more importantly, get permission from the historical society to let him store his casks down there?
Audric is clearly as passionate about Paris’ historic monuments as he is about his bees, but I discovered he’s also a bit of a medieval history buff, having done his Philosophy PhD thesis on Medieval Aesthetics. Once he knew the location existed, he used his powers of persuasion to convince the society members his casks belonged there. After all, it’s not hard to imagine hydromel was aged in these very tunnels in centuries past. They finally relented, although they may have briefly questioned that decision when, as we all sit down around a huge stone table with our hydromel to sample Audric’s honey, the fearless Philou jumps up for a closer sniff. “Oh la la, and at the President’s seat!” scolds one of the elderly members, shooing the beagle away. In between bites of honey-dipped bread and cheese slices, the journalists take photos and inspect the product packaging in the candlelight. Like the Miel de Paris, every bottle of Audric’s hydromel is hand-numbered and sold in elegant black boxes, embossed in gold and sealed in wax. “A bit ‘aristo’, non?” comments one journalist in an accusatory tone. The consummate marketer, Audric doesn’t skip a beat, owning up to his aristocratic origins while insisting the quality and exclusivity of the product justify the luxury branding. “It’s not just marketing with pretty bees on a pretty Parisian rooftop; my Miel de Paris has exceptional quality.”
And not just pretty bees, either. By now I’m already convinced this isn’t just some clever marketing ploy to increase his margin. Audric is clearly serious about beekeeping. Which is why I can’t help but laugh when I see the photos on his website of him posing next to the hives with young stiletto-heeled models in flimsy dresses. But if Audric knows bees, he also knows his market and how to sell a luxury product. This becomes more understandable once you know what took place between Audric’s student days when he maintained his hives after class, and where he is now as the young beekeeping entrepreneur producing high-end honey and hydromel.
What it Takes to Follow Your Dreams and Live Your Passion
During the decade in between, Audric went to business school, landed a well-paid marketing job in Switzerland with LVHM’s Tag Heuer brand, met and married his wife, and had four kids (including twins). “So every weekend I was traveling 1000 kilometers to tend to my hives in Paris, and finally it got to be too much. I had to make a choice,” says Audric. “Concentrate on my career and let someone else take care of my bees, or become an entrepreneur and expand the beekeeping business.” He pauses for a rare, brief moment. “And I thought, if I don’t follow my passion now, I’m not going to do it in ten years.” So he quit his job, trained a team of assistants, and invested all of his time, energy and talent into his urban beekeeping business. While that explains the origins of Audric’s luxury marketing prowess, he’s not exactly banking on feeding a family solely from the proceeds of limited-edition of hydromel and honey.
Epilogue: High-Tech Hives, the Future of Beekeeping
Back on the rooftop of the Ecole Militaire, he tells me about his newest project, a start-up for “high-tech urban hives” called Citizen Bees, based in Switzerland (where he still lives with his family while continuing to commute to Paris several times per month). This eco-responsible company has developed a “turnkey beekeeping service to maintain hives on the rooftops of companies and collectives interested in participating in the preservation of pollinating bees.” They do this using sophisticated monitoring equipment including miniature cameras, microphones, and over a dozen sensors for real-time monitoring via iPhone. “This is useful for beekeepers, who can monitor their hives if the bees run out of food, get too crowded, or leave in a swarm,” explains Audric. “It can be used by companies like hotels who want to show off ‘their’ honey bees on their website. And, most importantly, it can be used by scientists to study the bees.” Up until now, a lot of urban beekeeping successes are anecdotal, but with this technology they hope to use specific data gathered from hundreds of “connected” hives to discover exactly why bees in the city are thriving while hives in the countryside are experiencing CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). Audric is quick to admit that urban beekeeping alone can’t save the world’s endangered been population.
“A few hives in Paris won’t make a big difference, but if it gets the general population interested in bees then we can raise awareness about the problems they face, and that’s really important.”
At the end of our interview, I can’t help but be impressed with all this young Parisian has accomplished. It’s always inspiring to meet someone who dares to step off the easy path to follow their dreams at any cost. Audric doesn’t seem offended when I admit I was initially skeptical. “When I left LVMH I immediately lost two thirds of my income, and had to work ten times harder, but I was a hundred times happier,” he says with a smile. “I knew it would be hard. It’s very difficult, the life of a beekeeper. But it’s my passion.”
You can find limited quantities of Audric’s Hydromel de Paris at La Grand Epicerie de Paris (Bon Marché). His Miel de Paris is available online from La Grand Epicerie, as well as at Fauchon, Lafayette Gourmet and the boutique of the Musée d’Orsay. La Monnaie de Paris — the oldest company in the world still in business — is running a “Save a Bee. Bee a Hero!” crowdfunding campaign (en français) through February 22nd to support three new hives on their rooftop. Prizes include a hand-numbered jar of honey, your name on a hive, a collector’s medal from the Paris Mint, and an invitation to the inauguration party.