Concern over dwindling bee populations has led to a new kind of holiday with a positive impact
Chances are you’ve never heard of bee tourism. But the lives of people and bees are inextricably intertwined, and recent months have seen a hive of activity around ‘apitourism’.
It’s no secret that these creatures are in trouble. Disease, pesticides and habitat degradation are all contributing to dwindling numbers. Many of us are aware that bees are at crisis point and that their importance in the food chain cannot be underestimated. Experts say that at least a third of all the food we eat is linked to honeybees – the planet’s most prolific insect pollinators.
From the avenues of Paris to the streets of Seattle, I’d been hearing that the latest ecotourism wave – make that swarm – had arrived. Bee tourism destinations have sprung up in Malta, Slovenia, Turkey, Sardinia, and even as far away as Bangladesh and Uganda. They usually house honeybees in on-site apiaries, allowing close inspection of their fascinating miniature worlds and the chance to make the most of their lip-smacking hauls. But this trend also seemed to take in sleeping at family-run hotels, enjoying the freshest possible dining and visiting diverse locations: from beautiful natural landscapes to city skyscrapers. I wanted in.
Bee tourism destinations have sprung up in Malta, Slovenia, Turkey, Sardinia, and even as far away as Bangladesh and Uganda
My first call was Paris. Here, a project led by the national apiculture association to encourage urban beekeeping has allowed colonies to thrive. Legislation has helped too: Paris declared itself a pesticide-free zone in 2000. Honeybees have had a home in the roof of the city’s opera house for 25 years, and now newcomers such as the Mandarin Oriental hotel – where 50,000 bees reside in a rooftop hive – are hauling in honey harvests of nearly 30kg (65 lbs) a year. Some has found its way into recipes designed by the hotel’s chef Thierry Marx, from delicate, flaky pastries to cocktails. Guests who can’t get enough of the “sticky, licky stuff” (as Winnie-the-Pooh calls it) can opt in to initiatives such as reusing towels to receive a jar of take-home honey.
Wondering what the story was in the countryside, I headed south towards the Rhône-Alpes region and the village of Megève: a veritable honey nirvana. Here, where old villas with peeling turquoise shutters crumble with a gentle elegance, the scent of lavender and thyme fills the air – a promising omen.
My stop for the night was centuries-old farmhouse Les Fermes de Marie, specialising in spa treatments based around the healing power of alpine plants and, you guessed it, honey.
The village was beautiful: cobblestone streets, a domed 14th-century church, horse-drawn calèches (carriages) and the colossal Massif du Mont Blanc looming in the distance. And, of course, a street market bustling with every kind of honey product imaginable. This was the France I was hankering after: a place of fellow ‘api-enthusiasts’, expert queen bee breeders and organic farmers, all hooked on producing slow food and living lightly on the land.
I hit the road again and into the rollicking hills of the Perigord Vert where ex-pat couple Mike and Anna Innell run Dordogne Cycle Hire. They offer personalised tours that are closely linked to the community and include camping on local farms. The pay-off? A steady stream of honey from farm stay owners who keep bee colonies as a side income. Mike explained that farmers are partly motivated by a desire to have their crops pollinated, but also want to draw in visitors. They see the tradition of beekeeping and honey’s alleged healing abilities as interlinked with national heritage.
Back in the UK, as much as 35 per cent of our own food crops are thought to be directly dependent on pollination by honeybees. An estimated 85 per cent of apple and 45 per cent of strawberry crops rely entirely on bees. The Bee Coalition formed in 2012 with 13 of the UK’s leading environmental groups calling for a ban on toxic neonicotinoid pesticides. But life here remains particularly tough for honeybees.
They see the tradition of beekeeping and honey’s alleged healing abilities as interlinked with national heritage
At Chewton Glen, a privately owned country house hotel on the fringes of the New Forest, more than 50 beehives provide honey for a host of tempting dishes. And the 17th century Llangoed Hall, nestled in the dramatic Wye Valley, has expanded its garden to supply up to 95 per cent of the hotel’s vegetables, herbs and fruit. Guests choose their own eggs for breakfast from the chickens, quails and ducks that live there while their beehives, in specially created flower meadows, ooze with honey.
And, counterintuitive as it may seem, bees actually can do well in cities. The gardens, parks, railway sidings and tree-lined roads in urban areas such as London supply a good range of flowering plants. Members of James Hamill’s family have been beekeepers since 1922 and he opened his shop in Clapham more than 20 years ago. The tiny Hive Honey Shop is crammed with a bewildering variety of honeys.
Bee-lovers in the capital could try workshops run by Brian McCallum and Alison Benjamin at Urban Bees as well as Capital Bee, run by Camilla Goddard. Both sell their own seasonal harvest of honey online. And if you’re keen to help bees without getting sticky yourself, you could consider adopting a beehive through the British Beekeepers Association. The money raised supports vital research into honeybee health.
My journey showed me that there are heaps of fantastic spin-offs to spending time with bees. Apitourism is about participating rather than simply spectating; going on trips that are fulfilling for you but also good for the places you visit and their wildlife. The buzz is worth the hype.
Illustration: Studio Blackburn