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Fire Survival Story: Notre-Dame’s Rooftop Bees

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There are many dramatic stories that are emerging since the tragic fire that engulfed the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. One of those is that of the rooftop bees that miraculously survived. Cathedral Beekeepers (yes, the church has its own beekeepers) reported that at least some live bees have been seen emerging from and returning to professionally maintained hives.

About Notre-Dame’s Honeybees

There are approximately 180,000 honeybees that have been kept in three hives on a roof above the Cathedral’s sacristy. They’re maintained by beekeeper Nicholas Gaent who has been observing the insects since the fire. While he admitted that he wasn’t optimistic about the insects’ chance of survival, he was thrilled to be proven wrong. Just days after the fire, he reported on his Instagram feed that the wooden hives “seem to be in place and appear to be intact.”

His posts on the bees include a wealth of information and beautiful photography. He shows bees converging on the neck of one of the landmark’s famed Gargoyles and a diagram of the location of the hives.

Bees At Risk From Fire, Heat, Melting Wax

While everyone is glad that the hives have survived, more needs to be done to understand what happened to them. One of the risks for the bees stemmed from the wax that is a core part of any beehive. Beeswax melts at approximately 145 degrees Fahrenheit. While the hives weren’t on the part of the roof that was engulfed by flame, they were in close proximity to the heat. If the hive had been closer to the fire and the wax had melted, bees would likely have become fatally trapped by the liquefied substance.

Bees Unaffected By Smoke, Sedated By CO2

Because bees don’t have lungs, they are unaffected by smoke. In fact, beekeepers typically use controlled smoke when they approach beehives to retrieve honey or perform maintenance. That means that even though the Notre-Dame hives were almost certainly filled with smoke from the rooftop fire, this in and of itself wouldn’t have impacted the insects. While the smoke isn’t harmful, the CO2 from the smoke has a sedating effect on the insects. It keeps them settled in a sleep-like state, almost as if they are extremely drunk. Beekeepers also theorize this is because smoke interferes with the release of pheromones that the guard bees use to warn the hive of danger. It also encourages the bees to gorge on honey in preparation for leaving the hive. All of these reasons may be why keepers use smoke in hive management.

Notre-Dame Is Part Of Paris’ Beekeeping Program

Notre-Dame is not the only place in Paris where hives of honeybees are kept. The city recognized threats from a declining honeybee and pollinator program and began encouraging beekeeping. Urban landmarks including the Opera Garnier, at the Musee D’Orsay and in Luxembourg Gardens host hives and sell the resulting honey. Notre-Dame first added their hives in 2013 and gave the honey from bees to the poor. Each of the cathedral’s wooden box hives kept there was home to about 60,000 bees.

Social Media Cheers The Bees’ Survival

Online fans were beyond thrilled at the hive’s survival. While the world grieved the tragic losses that resulted from the fire at the centuries-old religious landmark, any signs of hope were welcomed. Comments included things like “Our Lady’s Bees Are Still Alive”, and “Go Bees! A building, no matter how special is just a building, but bees are life”. These sentiments almost certainly reflect what the world is feeling in the wake of the Notre-Dame tragedy.

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