The Bee Man

Posted by nigelorrmail on August 8, 2013 at 10:40 AM

“The Bee Man”  

    Bruno Poissonier had a dream. To combine his love of  inland waterways with that of bee keeping . His peniche  “Phalene” does just that . His cargo is beehives that sit on the deck of the 38m craft as it plies its way through the waters of the canals and rivers of Southern France . He follows the crops to catch the acacia or spring flowers or the sunflowers . Once stopped the hives are opened and the bees are set to work . We have met Bruno and his wife Mireille and their two delightful children on many occasions in the South . The first was on the quai at Avignon . “Waterman” had wintered there and rather than clean up our Gordon Setter, Baron’s business each time I had got into the habit of cleaning the quai of  all dog’s business once a week . So there I was with my bucket and spade in hand as the peniche “Phalene” arrived . Having moored up the captain of the boat walked up to me and said “You cannot be French!” . I explained in my very rudimentary way that, no, I was English and staying in Avignon for the winter . He explained that only foreigners would clean up as I was and he magnanimously thanked me on behalf of the entire French people ! We parted on good terms with open invites from each of us to visit the other’s boat . By the next day there were banners up on his boat saying “Exposition Des Abeilles” and “Produits des Ruches” and the gangplank was down to welcome visitors . As business did not seem that brisk I ventured on board. I was welcomed by Bruno and invited to their private quarters whilst he and his wife explained what they were doing. The boat turned out to be a mobile floating production and processing factory for honey . On the decks were rows of beehives which I  had not identified as they were so out of place and also closed down whilst in transit. They explained that in the “honey season” they cruise the Canal du Midi stopping at chosen spots near to crops suitable for the bees to go to work. Once they arrive at a spot vertical nets about two and a half metres high are erected around the periphery of the boat. The purpose of these is to ensure that as the bees leave the hives on the deck they fly up high quickly so that they are not a nuisance to passing boaters and also can get a good panoramic view of the new countryside. They stay at that one spot for a few weeks and then as the crop gets past it’s peak they move on to pastures new. By this stage in the explanation the Hydromel had appeared and we were into our second glass. This is a rather sweet alcoholic concoction made from honey. It went down very well . Bruno then took me downstairs to the hold of the peniche to show us his “production line”.  Below decks was a fully fitted and immaculate set up for extracting, cleansing and bottling the various products from the hives - “Produits des Ruches”.  There was a big centrifuge for extracting the honey and all sorts of other gadgets for melting wax and collecting pollen. There were boxes and boxes of produce as well as stocks of empty containers for the coming season. He was exceedingly enthusiastic and proud of his enterprise and rightly so. I bought a few jars of honey and we said our farewells. Two days later and he was off heading South and West for the Canal du Midi. It was to be August before we were to see him again. By this time we had traveled to near Moissac on the Canal Lateral de la Garonne having traversed the Camargue on the canal de Rhone a Sete, the 17 kilometer long Etang de Thau with its oyster and mussel beds, and then the Canal du Midi to Toulouse. Near to Montech we had coupled up with two Locaboats who were about to do the stretch to Moissac down the flight of locks to the side of the still operational inclined plane. I had been down to see the foreman in the hope of using it. It turns out  it is only used for boats over 25 metres and he would have taken a bit of convincing that the little 15 metres “Waterman” was that length.

    This regulation had forced us to have to go down the lock flight instead and so Mary was going to be working for her living today ! She was more than happy to share the locks and work with the other two boats , the crews of which were friendly and interested in our travels. They were hiring for the second time and had come from Oregon and California. We had plenty of time to chat as we worked down the flight and then as we set off on a longish pound I let them past me. About an hour later as we were starting to get peckish for lunch we cam round a bend to see “Phalene” moored up right out in the countryside. Her nets were up, all the hives were open and you could hear the buzzing of millions of bees. The two Locaboats went past not knowing exactly what this strange craft was but stopped further up for lunch. We tooted our horn and Bruno’s smiling head popped up from the cabin to greet us. We tied up alongside him and within seconds there seemed to be bees everywhere. I closed all our windows and took Baron to one of the bedrooms. He is a bit stupid with bees and tries to eat them !

    We said hello and explained we were just stopping to stock up with honey and then pushing on to Moissac. The deck of the peniche was covered in dead bees but Bruno explained that with the population he had on board this was quite a normal number. The sound of the buzzing on the decks was amazing. As the Americans had stopped I walked down the towpath to explain to them what they had passed and to see if they wanted to visit the only floating beehive in the world. They were very keen and we spent the next hour doing the tour of “Phalene” including many “degustations” of his products. The Americans & Mark in particular, were fascinated by it all and bought a bit of everything including a few bottles of the Hydromel, one of which was presented to us for having organised the visit .

    Our next encounter with  the “Beeman” was at Beziers  that autumn. We arrived at the top of the six lock staircase to find the canal surface covered in dead fish. The stench was horrible and the lock were not operating because the fish were blocking the gates. It turned out that someone had been cleaning his vats before the new wine arrived from the presses and had pumped the flushing chemicals into the canal. It was chaos with about forty hire and private boaters waiting to go down when round the bend comes Phalene. As a commercial boat they are allowed to jump the queue and as they worked their way down the flight we caught up on their news. My sister had come to see Mary and I and was fascinated by their enterprise. She lives on the island of Colonsay off the west coast of Scotland and knows the beekeeper on the island. She decided to take some honey samples back for him. Two weeks later when she got back to Colonsay and presented her honey to the beekeeper he said “Oh yes I know all about this !”  He subscribes to an American bee keeping magazine and that month there had been an article on “Phalene” written by an American who lives in the south of France. What a small world !

    Our last sighting of Phalene was almost as fleeting. We were heading east near La Somail when we met them coming the other way. They were on the way to Toulouse to use the dry dock there for maintenance. We simply tied together in mid canal and spent some time buying more honey. The sunflower one is rather special. We were right across the canal and cold see a rather perplexed hireboat approaching so cast off and went in our different directions . Two boats each pursuing their dreams in very different ways .


Categories: Travel stories

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