Concrete Honey in the city of love – can bees provide the answer to urban sustainability?

*Romantic Edith Piaf feeling intensifies* Image: Moyan Brenn

One of Paris's sweetest and most enduring love stories is between the city and its bees. When you think of Paris you usually picture wine, cheese or the equally pungent Metro, but rarely do we associate la Tour Eiffel with those buzzy little honey makers we call bees. All this will soon change, because the French capital is home to a growing number of beehives and is fast becoming the capital of urban beekeeping.

There is a growing trend for cities across Europe and America to put hives on their rooftops. As people wander around the stunning Parisian streets they are usually unaware of the buzz that is going on above them; the iconic zinc-coated rooftops are increasingly “apiculture-friendly”, with hives on the top of Opera Garnier, Notre Dame, Le Bon Marche and La Grande Epicerie, Grand Palais, and the Assemblée Nationale.

There are even hives on the top of a sky-scraper in Paris’s hectic business district, and the French Communist Party set up a handful of hives on the roof of its imposing 1970s-era headquarters in Colonel Fabien. This sparked a debate around the exploitation of bees.

Just the bee-siness 

At the Tour d’Argent, a Left Bank restaurant, diners could enjoy “roast duckling with spices and honey from our roof” as they gazed across at Cathedral of Notre Dame. It has also become du jour for high-class hotels to make their own honey. The Mandarin-Oriental and Eiffel Park Hotels boast their own sweet supplies, selling their honey at a steep price of around €15 for 150g. Which is quite amusing when you bear in mind that honey is basically bee vomit.

The French national rail operator SNCF installed eight hives on the rooftop of Austerlitz station two years ago. Situated on the Left Bank of the Seine, the station bees get propolis from the Jardin des Plantes (France's main botanical garden) next door and in return provide enough honey for 2,000 pots a year, given out to passengers passing through the station. 

Bet the bees love it here. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Urban beekeeping may be a growing trend but it is definitely not a new thing in Paris, a city famed for being at the forefront of fashions. Many cities, including New York, banned urban beekeeping until recently but Paris has long had a passion for bees, which were cultivated in the city as far back as 1856 in the Luxembourg Garden, where there is still a beekeeping school.

A century ago, there were more than 1,000 hives in the city, but they almost totally disappeared in the decades after the Second World War. Among the first of the new generation was the hives installed 15 years ago on the roof of the Paris Opera, producing little jars of honey sold at about €14.50 – a high price to, ahem, hit the high notes.

Literally the only close-up of a bee in the Luxembourg Garden. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The renewed interest in apiaries has been ignited in part by an increase in public awareness of threats to the bee population. Like other countries in Europe and the Americas, France – Europe's biggest agriculture producer – has seen a worrying decline in bee numbers in recent years. Around 100,000 French hives have been lost since 1995, and the amount of honey produced has fallen from 32,000 tonnes to 20,000. The real sting is that bee mortality rates are three times what is considered normal.

From Paris To Bee-lin

Paris now boasts more than 400 hives, and the number is growing steadily: it seems the bees have become enamoured with the city of love. This is because the city offers an abundance of greenery and bee-friendly environments. Paris is a city obsessed with beauty and many of its residents fill their balconies with a varied array of flowers all year round. Parisian streets are also famously lined with non-native Sophora trees, which start to blossom later than August, when most rural pollination has ended. The success of the city bees provokes sorely needed hope for their rural cousins – agriculture, an industry valued globally at €153bn, relies on pollination by bees.

Man relaxes in Luxembourg Gardens contemplating global agriculture. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It is a strange paradox that bees are often faring better in cities such as Paris than in rural areas. For the past 10 years the French capital has been officially a pesticide-free zone, and the warmth of the city environment also promotes early breeding. And things are looking up for the Parisian bees. The city government wants to have  one square kilometre of green roofs, pavements and walls, with a third of that space dedicated to the production of fruits and vegetables.


In 2005 the Paris-based National Apiculture Association ran a huge campaign to encourage beekeeping in cities – the largest such project in the world – and amateur hives have popped up around the city ever since. For Parisians interested in setting up hives the rules are relatively simple – a novel notion in a city where red tape can be as long as a piece of string. The guidelines simply state that hives must be registered with the veterinary authority and be more than 25 metres from a school or hospital – a common-sense approach to promote sensible bee-haviour (sorry not sorry).

Concrete flowerbeds

Beekeeping is certainly capturing imaginations. Olivier Darné is a designer and beekeeper who reintroduces bees to cities through urban hives, producing what the media have dubbed as Miel de Béton (Concrete Honey). He is a known as a graphiculteur, a very cool job title that is a contraction of the French words graphiste (graphic designer) and apiculteur (beekeeper). For more than ten years, he has been leading a project to “pollenate the city” with a collective of mixed-media artists. With names like Concrete Honey and the Japanese market exploding, don't be surprised to see the likes of Kanye rapping about honey extraction.

Not the moment to realise you forgot to zip up your fly. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Bees and other pollinating insects play an essential role in our lives – one third of all our food depends on their pollination.

As more and more people take to the iconic zinc-covered rooftops of Paris to keep bees amidst the cityscape, it seems Parisians’ sweet tooth will stand out as an example – a small but positive step toward a more sustainable coexistence in urban environments.

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Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.