In the wake of the devastating fire that tore through Notre-Dame, French officials have been taking stock of the damage, trying to determine which of the cathedral’s precious objects survived. Late last week, some happy news emerged: at least some of the 180,000 honey bees kept in wooden boxes atop Notre-Dame’s roof appear unscathed.
Nicolas Geant, the cathedral’s beekeeper, tells CNN’s Saskya Vandoorne and Gianluca Mezzofiore that the three hives are located on a roof above the sacristy—around 100 feet below the main roof, which sustained extensive damage during the fire. Last Tuesday, Geant announced on Instagram that “the 3 beehives are still in place and seem to be intact,” per a translation by Vice’s Sarah Emerson. But there was still reason to be concerned about the buzzing critters, since high temperatures from the nearby flames posed a possible risk.
“Wax melts at 63 degrees [Celcius, or 145.4 degrees Fahrenheit],” Geant explains to Vandoorne and Mezzofiore. “[I]f the hive had reached that temperature the wax would have melted and glued the bees together, they would have all perished.”
The bees’ fate remained uncertain until Thursday, when Geant posted that Notre-Dame’s site managers had confirmed that the insects were alive. “I got a call from Andre Finot, the spokesman for Notre Dame, who said there were bees flying in and out of the hives,” he tells Vandoorne and Mezzofiore.
The bees’ homes had likely filled with smoke while the cathedral’s roof burned, but because the insects do not have lungs, smoke does not pose the same risk as it does to humans. For centuries, in fact, people have been using smoke as a benign way to subdue bees while accessing their honey. The mechanisms at play are not entirely clear, but it is thought that smoke interferes with the release of pheromones that guard bees emit to warn the rest of the hive of danger. Smoke may also prompt bees to gorge on honey in preparation for leaving the hive, which distracts them and makes them less likely to sting.
Notre-Dame is not the only landmark in Paris to play host to resident honey bees. As Alissa J. Rubin reported for the New York Times last year, urban beekeeping is a popular past time there, and hives can be found everywhere from the roof of the Opera Garnier to the Musée D’Orsay to the lush Luxembourg Gardens. Some buildings sell their honey in gift shops. Notre-Dame, according to Rubin, was giving honey to the poor.
Geant has not been able to access the site, so he does not know if all of the cathedral’s bees have survived. Like others around the world, he is mourning the damage that Notre-Dame has endured. “But to hear there is life when it comes to the bees, that's just wonderful,” he tells Vandoorne and Mezzofiore. “I was overjoyed.”