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FARMING

How one French apple farmer became a beekeeper to keep his business alive

In an apple orchard outside Paris, a constant hum among the blossoming trees bears witness to thousands of worker bees pollinating millions of flowers in just three weeks.

How one French apple farmer became a beekeeper to keep his business alive
File photo: AFP
“Without bees, no pollinization, no apples, no life,” sums up farmer Alexandre Prot, who decided to deal with a decline in bee populations by becoming a beekeeper as well.
 
“We are not worried about the lack of bees because we have our own,” he said, during a tour of his 30 hives, which are backed up by another 30 that he 
hires during spring months to ensure his 60 hectares (150 acres) of apples are fertilised.
   
Prot initially took a business degree to work as an auditor on the New York and Paris commodities markets before coming back to his family's 300-hectare apple and grain farm in Chevreville, about an hour north of the French capital.
 
File photo: Apple orchard in France
 
'Autonomous'
 
His grandfather, who planted the first apple trees, and his father both called on professional beekeepers to ensure the orchard was properly pollinated.
   
“Having bees lets me be autonomous with respect to my apple crop,” he said.
   
“Each year, the hives divide in two, the young queen finds a new home, and we recover the swarms” of worker bees and drones.
   
“So every year we enlarge our population.”
   
Prot recovers 500 kilos (1,100 pounds) of honey per year, which he sells in the farm's store. 
 
But it is almost a derivative product because the pollinization is the farmer's main motivation.
   
The national apiculture institute, ITSAP, estimates that the value of the work done by bees in helping pollinise the fruits, cereals and vegetables from the plants and trees of French farmers is two billion euros ($2.2 billion).
   
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has made the conservation and sustainable use of pollinators an absolute priority in dealing with a pollinization crisis that threatens global food resources.
 
The FAO estimates that almost 35 percent of agricultural production worldwide depends on pollinators such as bees, birds and bats, which improve yields on the 87 most cultivated food plants.
 
Photo: AFP
 
Yarrow and calendula
 
In France, the number of farmers who have installed their own beehives to support crops is not known, said Eric Lelong, head of the recently created trade association, InterApi.
   
He nonetheless believes that it is “indispensable to put a value on pollinization”. 
   
In California's almond groves, output can fall sharply unless beehives are brought in, “which explains very high prices for hive rentals,” he noted.
   
Prot looks after his worker bees closely therefore, sowing fields of flowers, yarrow, calendula, linen and white clover near the hives.
   
“Since they don't all bloom at the same time, they constitute a pantry for bees from May to October, when there are no more apple blossoms.”
   
Though the average rate of bee colony collapse in France rose to 30 percent in 2017-2018 owing to humid conditions and attacks by Varroa mites according to the agriculture ministry, Prot says that he did not lose a single colony.
 
 

 
'Let nature do its work'
 
The farmer has chosen to produce apples under an “eco-responsable” label, as have 65 percent of all apple farmers in France. 
   
Situated between wholly commercial production methods and organic ones, the method provides for stable output from one year to the next, which is necessary to obtain contracts with major distributors, while it reduces the use of pesticides.
   
“The approach is to let nature do its work, as much as it can, while not ruling out interventions” if the crop is threatened by mould or pests, Prot said. 
   
Use of crop protection products or chemicals such as copper or sulphur must take place while bees are asleep in their hives.
   
Before reaching that point, farmers who keep bees use other methods aimed at “orienting” natural processes, such as installing “insect hotels” in orchards so that wild drones passing through can help pollinate flowers.
   
Nests for birds that eat insects and worms are another tool, as are perches for raptors that eat mice and voles which damage apple tree roots.
   
To thwart night butterflies whose larva infest the apples themselves, Prot resorts to “sexual confusion” by spraying female pheromones that disorient males who cannot find the mates they expect and do not therefore reproduce.
   
That means no larvae, no worms in the apples and no need for pesticides.

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FARMING

French hunter kills bear that bit him

A 70-year-old hunter killed a bear in southwest France Saturday after it attacked and seriously wounded him, local officials said.

A brown bear is pictured in the semi-wildlife animal park of Les Angles, southwestern France.
Brown bears had nearly disappeared in France until the country began a reintroduction programme, importing them from Slovenia. AFP PHOTO / RAYMOND ROIG

The female bear, who was travelling with her cubs, bit him as he was hunting in the Seix region of Ariege, a source close to the case said.

Rescued by the local gendarmerie, he was transported to the intensive care unit of a hospital in Toulouse with a wound to his leg at the level of his femoral artery, officials at the prefecture in Ariege said.

One source close to the case said he was in a serious condition.

The hunter told local officials he had been out with a group of other hunters on the trail of a boar, when the female bear, who was travelling with her cubs, attacked him.

After being wounded, the hunter shot the bear twice, killing it.

The local gendarme unit was called out to rescue him at around 3:30 pm (1430 GMT). They discovered the body of the bear a few metres from where they had found the hunter.

An investigation has been opened into the incident, the prefecture in Ariege said.

One local official told AFP on Saturday: “This is really what we feared.”

“Today, you can really see that cohabitation is complicated,” said Christine Tequi, president of the Ariege department council.

The brown bear had nearly disappeared in this part of the world when France began a programme of reintroducing them, importing them from Slovenia.

Today, there are around sixty of them in the Pyrenees range, leading to increasing tensions with local farmers, because of the threat they pose to their livestock.

In 2020, three bears were illegally killed in the Pyrenees: two of them in Spain and one in France. The French government has committed to replacing any bear killed by a man.

READ ALSO: The decades-old battle between French farmers and conservationists over bears
READ ALSO: What are the most dangerous animals in France?

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