Honey from Paris Is All the Buzz

To make a pint and a half of honey, a honeybee treks from flower to flower to flower, almost a million times. That's about 25,000 honeybee air miles, or the distance around the world at the equator. Of course, a bee's world is concentrated in a ring around the hive—a radius of meadows, forests, or 40 city blocks. But on the immigrant-rich edges of Paris, a honeybee's rounds really are a trip around the world. Inner-city biodiversity is an echo of its people, of its history, and of globalization: seeds inadvertently traipsed over borders or in shipping containers, or on purpose through garden-center imports or stowaway seeds secreted home from a trip to the old country. Which is how Paris, and all its diverse residents, have found themselves in a most unlikely honey pot.

Olivier Darné is an artist turned beekeeper from the often-troubled Seine-St-Denis district just north of Paris's beltway. He has put hives on roofs and even sidewalks throughout these quarters to collect what he calls Miel Béton—Concrete Honey. Its varieties—the butter-colored spring blend; the darker, more intense summer crop; and the delicate, almost syrupy early-fall honey—are all as different as they are delicious. But Darné isn't interested just in something sweet. He is really after "pollen-gathering anecdotes," a sort of map of the city pieced together from the feet of bees. Armed with the urban portrait his little bees have be-gun to plot out, Darné wants to create a honey taste map with beekeepers in Europe to chart the "geopolitical tectonics of honeys." "The principle is to look at how human diversity—cultural and social biodiversity—can be traced in the honey," says Darné. "The more a city is a sort of palette, a cultural kaleidoscope, the more we can find markers of the cultural kaleidoscope in the honey made there."

He has already made some startling discoveries. Testers have been surprised to find equatorial pollens from palm trees in Darné's honey pots. There's evidence of a pollen that looks to be from the family of the baobab tree, the whimsical African colossus. "There aren't any baobabs in the Greater Paris area, that's for sure," Darné says. Some pollens linger unidentified while researchers trade pollen photos over the Internet with colleagues in New Zealand and Madagascar. Olive tree, eucalyptus, the South African gazania flower, even cannabis is traceable in Seine-St-Denis hives, according to Yves Loublier, a pollen specialist with the French National Center for Scientific Research. Some samples of Darné's Concrete Honey boast as many as 250 different pollens, more than in the honey he has collected from his hives at the Pompidou Center and the Palais Royal, and 10 times more than honeys in some of France's rural regions, where a honey may top out with as few as 20.

In fact, rural bees and their honeys have suffered in recent years, because of predator insects, pesticides, and industrial agriculture that can sow a single crop like colza as far as the eye can see—or, more important, as far as the bee can fly. But cities are honey hotbeds. Trapped pollution, pavements, and swarming humanity make the urban core about 3 degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside. The warmth means the flowers bloom earlier and the busy honeybees can work longer days—even in August, when the rest of the country takes a vacation.