“Happyculator: a person who makes his or her honey out of the small joys of life.”
By setting up his beekeeping farm in the small mountain village of Aragnouet, located in the Aure valley, Julien VERNARDET made the choice to launch himself into the organic production of mountain honey. To do so, he deliberately teamed up with the black bees of the Pyrenees. Endemic and more resistant species, but wilder, more aggressive and less productive. Neglected by a large majority of beekeepers who prefer more productive species, black bees now represent only 10% of the honeybee population in France.
The Aure honey house has 200 hives scattered between the village of Izaux, located at an altitude of 700 m, and Cap de Long, located at 2200 meters. The ambient temperature of a hive must always be maintained between 35 and 37°. It is heated by the bees’ wing beats, I understand better why a hive can house more than 60,000 bees.
The bees feed only on honey and pollen. Julien therefore ensures that they always have a sufficient supply of honey and voluntarily limits his pollen harvest, deposited by the foragers at each of their passage in a trapdoor installed at the entrance of the hive. Finally, to fight against diseases, the bees cover the inside of their hive with propolis. A natural antibiotic that they gather from the buds of certain trees.
Reticent about the phenomenon of “organic” being thrown around, I was rather reserved about the interest of producing such a honey. I was wrong.
Julien explained to me that in order to preserve his beehives from parasites (including the aptly named “varroa destructor”) and other diseases, he had given up antibiotics and other chemicals to use only organic acids. He was also careful to install his apiaries in places where the bees do their nectar business by foraging on still preserved wild flora.
These choices allowed him to obtain “Organic Agriculture”certification, which is subject to at least one control per year, and to be labeled “National Park Spirit”.
In the spring, the beekeeper has to face the desire of the queen and some of the bees to create a new colony. Julien anticipates this natural swarming in order not to see his precious foragers vanish into the wild. So he installs the queen and part of the bees in a new hive. A new queen then naturally takes her place in the old hive.
Transhumance of bees
A mountain beekeeper, winter weather conditions force Julien to operate the transhumance of his high altitude hives. He takes them up to the summer pastures in the spring and brings them back down at the end of the summer period. This transhumance is done at night, the only time when the bees have a little rest. Another constraint: the snow. It is not rare that in winter, some apiaries are covered with snow. As the bees do not hibernate, Julien must then provide snow removal services, sometimes on snowshoes, to ensure their survival.
Each season has its own honey
For me, as much as for 95% of the population, honey … is honey. Big mistake. The taste of honey varies with the seasons and the goodwill of Mother Nature. This is where the location of the apiaries is essential. In the lower valley, the taste of the honey will have a dominant of chestnut, acacia or lime tree. In the high valley, rhododendron, wild raspberry or callune (Pyrenean “heather”) will predominate. The taste of the honey thus varies according to the time of harvest and the blooming of the surrounding flora.
A voluntarily limited production
Given the demand, Julien could easily double his production of mountain honey. However, he limits it annually to 20 kg per apiary (which includes about 25 hives) or nearly 4 tons. He explains this by the time he devotes to his hives and his desire to preserve the quality of his nectar. The honey is harvested in spring, summer and fall. Julien collects the frames, full of honey, from the supers and places them in a centrifuge. He then extracts the nectar cold to avoid any alteration of its natural character.
The organic production of the meillerie d’Aure includes a wide variety of honeys, aromatics, pollens and propolis and I strongly invite you to meet this singular beekeeper.
Julien is present on the market of Saint-Lary Soulan every Saturday morning. You can also go visit his bee farm, located near the town hall of Aragnouet or discover his products at the Maison du Patrimoine de Saint-Lary Soulan.