The Honey Gatherers

The Honey Gatherers
April 12, 2017 Christina Mullin

All over the planet, the humble honeybee busies itself with a singular purpose – perpetuation of the hive. Highly organized work-forces operate together with seamless efficiency collecting pollen and nectar to create honey. This honey sustains the colony, and most importantly feeds the omnipotent queen and her offspring, throughout the year, especially in the cold dark months of the flowerless winter.

At the same time, all over the planet, many human beings are also on a mission to hunt for bees, harness or host their hives and gather the honey for their own uses; be that culinary, medicinal or cosmetic.

The honey hunter-gatherer’s quest varies from harvesting honey from naturally occurring to purpose built hives, in all sorts of environments; from cliffs to deltas, gardens to abbeys, large-scale bee-‘farms’ to singular hives dotted over a cityscape. All over the planet, one man, Eric Tourneret, has travelled, dedicating his career as a photojournalist to discovering the types and traditions of beekeeping, honey hunting and honey gathering; taking images of bees and their keepers – their hunter-gatherers in different societies and subcultures, some of which are increasingly threatened by the creep and crush of globalization.

Stingless Bees in Mexico

 Stingless bees are native to equatorial zones of Australia, Africa and the Americas, building their hives in hollow tree trunks.  However, they can also be found in earthenware pots, as well as trunks, by the walls of houses occupied by the coffee-making Nahuat and Totonac families in Puebla on the foothills of the Sierra Madre, Mexico. This community is The Tosepan Titataniske (United, We Conquer) cooperative, made up of nearly 6,000 families regrouped to market Fairtrade coffee. As well as the coffee cultivation, the bees are managed, literally next-door to the houses – continuing the tradition, which historically was undertaken by the women in the pre-Hispanic era.  This idyllic set-up, however, is under threat. The stingless bees are being affected by the pesticides used within the surrounding mono-cultural farmlands, and by the stronger African bees.


The opening to a melipona beecheii’s trunk hive is sealed at each end with dried earth. When Hernan Cortés landed with his armada in 1519, he discovered apiaries made up of several hundreds of hollowed out trunks placed horizontally in the shelter of palms.

Unlike the European apis mellifera, the stingless bee does not store the stock of honey and pollen in hexagonal cells, but in pockets sitting outside the brood cells.

Bee-Keeping in France

Domestication of the bees, beginning, we think in the Middle East, has progressed through human civilization to more familiar apiculture, as it is practiced in France: monolithic-looking chestnut trunk and slate hives (bruscs) can still be found in Cevennes; farmers in rural Provence use traditional transhumance transportation – donkeys; and resourceful use of local oak, straw and dung to make hives can still be found (just) in the Basque-lands.

A Cevennes apiculturist with his smoker inspects a trunk apiary located at the heart of a chestnut grove. These ancient sedentary beehives called “bruscs”, are dug out in chestnut trees and covered in slate slabs. These types of hives were used until World War II.

Donkeys used to be used for the transhumance. Pascaline, beekeeper and donkey herder in Bourdeaux, Drome, France, has used a few beehives to reconstruct a scene inspired by the history of Provence.

In the Basque Country, this farmer, who is nearing retirement, still owns a few straw hives.

Urban Beekeeping – London, Paris and New York

Big cities may be the surprise saviors in the plight of the bee under threat from loss of habitat and chemical-induced starvation. With an increasingly monochrome mono-cultural countryside, devoid of patchwork diversity, and bathed in an invisible haze of agricultural chemicals, cities may unexpectedly offer a better-balanced and purer environment for the bees. Environmentalists have been repeatedly stressing in recent years that a balance between mankind and nature must be restored. It may be the tiny humble bee, reintroduced and flourishing within the city, man’s archetypal artificial creation, that is the first step on the long road to restoring this vital balance.


In London, the mayor, Boris Johnson, previously stressing the importance of the humble bee in food production and as “a reliable barometer for measuring the health of our natural environment” initiated a competition, funded by the government, to set up 2012 gardens (to mark the 2012 London Olympics year) and 50 apiaries, as well as beekeeping training courses. Londoners were also encouraged to grow melliferous plants (those that can be harvested by domesticated honey bees) and not just random flowers, fruit and vegetables, using the least chemical products possible, to encourage responsible apiculture and make London a bee friendly city.



Sharon Bassey on the right, and Liz Gill, in the Stuart Road allotments where Sharon started a garden that became an apiary. Today, Sharon is leading a group of seven people through the apiary. Sharon works with children with learning difficulties and Liz repairs clocks.

New York City

In New York City, in a similar time scale, 2008, the New York City Beekeeper’s Association was set up, forming a group of like-minded bee-minded people, from established apiarists to absolute beginners. Another highly unlikely environment, proving highly successful in the promotion, management and sustainability of these vital little insects.

Andrew Coté, 38 years old, is the founder of the New York City Beekeepers’ Association, created in December 2008 and which is rapidly growing, bringing together experienced and beginner beekeepers and also all bee lovers. Here, at an apiary in Brooklyn. “Brooklyn abounds in lindens and acacias, and the flora is diverse.”


In Paris, there are more than 300 hives thriving on the roofs and gardens, as the city is reasonably pesticide-free and provides a variety of blossom. Like Londoners, the Parisians have also become keen apiarists. The Parisian beekeepers may well be contributing to the salvation of the bees; as opposed to an average of 10 to 20 kilos for hives in the fields of rural areas, the city hives can produce up to 100 kilos of honey per year.

Jean Paucton, 76 years old, set up his hives twenty years ago on the roof of the Opera Garnier just by chance. A prop man at the opera, he took courses in beekeeping at the Société Centrale for apiculture in the Luxembourg gardens. Sharing his time between Paris and the Creuse, he didn’t know what to do with a hive given to him by a friend. It was the Opera fireman, who himself bred fish in the underground pond beneath the opera, who gave him the idea of setting the bees up on the roof of the Garnier.

All photos by Éric Tourneret.

Excerpted from a longer piece by Jenny Jones:
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