A nature-lover’s guide to CERN

The “Nature et abeilles” club maintains a dozen beehives and compiles inventories of the flora and insects on the CERN sites. (Image: Julien Ordan, Anna Mestvirishvili/CERN)

Visitors to CERN are often struck by the anarchic urbanisation, the unalluring industrial edifices, car-parks and roads. Yet, in the midst of the metal and tarmac, nature maintains a firm foothold. Look closely and you will spy green enclaves and an unexpected variety of flora and fauna, lovingly looked after by the team responsible for parks maintenance at CERN. Believe it or not, parks and woodlands account for 100 hectares out of the 211 hectares of land within CERN’s fences.

CERN’s Meyrin and Prévessin sites are dotted with islands of greenery that are home to typical dry grassland flora. In particular CERN has the widest variety of orchid species in the Geneva region, from the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) to the man orchid (Orchis antropophora), and from the monkey orchid (Orchis simia) to the most numerous and most recognisable species, the bright pink pyramidal orchid (Anacampsis pyramidalis).

Flowering from May onwards, the pyramidal orchid is the most prolific of the orchids growing at CERN. (Image: Pauline Albert/CERN)

CERN boasts many species of trees, although dozens of poplars have had to be felled in recent years. Most of these were planted about forty years ago and were reaching the end of their lives. They also became dangerous with their roots reaching underground water and electricity networks. “Next winter we will plant about 90 saplings on the Swiss part of the Meyrin site,” says CERN parks manager, Mathieu Fontaine. “Further planting campaigns are planned in subsequent years in order to replenish CERN’s tree population.”

CERN is also committed to biodiversity and nature conservation in the land just beyond its fences. France and Switzerland have lent CERN a number of parcels, amounting to 415 hectares, which have not yet been given over to science and constitute the unfenced site of the Organization. This includes about 300 hectares of agricultural land leased to farmers and 90 hectares of woods. CERN has undertaken to manage these tracts on behalf of its Host States. The Laboratory is thus helping to support agriculture in the Pays de Gex and is contributing to the preservation of the region’s last lowland forests.

One of the spectacular poplar-felling campaigns. These trees are about forty years old. Often weakened by mistletoe (as in the photo), they have become a hazard for CERN’s installations. (Image: Erwan Le Marrec, ONF)

CERN’s woodlands are brimming with local varieties such as oak, ash, wild cherry, hornbeam, aspen, poplar and common alder, managed and operated by the French national forestry commission, Office national des forêts (ONF). “These tracts are managed in the same way as regular high forests, with holes made to allow natural regeneration,” CERN’s park warden, Erwan Le Marrec, explains.

The timber from the commercial operation of the forests or from the felling of ageing poplars is either used for wood energy, to heat public buildings in the Pays de Gex, or sent to local sawmills and made into items like pallets.

On the fauna side, CERN’s famous sheep have now started grazing CERN’s pastures, as they do every year. Starting behind the Globe of Science and Innovation, they will spend the summer ambling from one meadow to the next, their bells sometimes tinkling within earshot of CERN’s visitors.

Every summer, CERN’s fields are kept tidy by a flock of sheep. An air of the countryside, with the tinkling of bells, can be heard amid the concrete and metal of CERN’s buildings. (Image: Noemi Caraban/CERN)

The Prévessin site has other surprises including CERN’s very own population of bees! Every ten days, members of the CERN club “Nature et Abeilles” – or “Nature and Bees” – look after the dozen beehives on site. This year, the first spring harvest produced about 120 kilograms of honey.

The “Nature et Abeilles” club looks after a dozen beehives which have already produced 120 kg of honey in the spring, with more to come in the summer. An excellent harvest! (Image: Julien Ordan, Anna Mestvirishvili/CERN)

The “Nature et Abeilles” club also regularly draws up floristic and entomological inventories on CERN’s various plots, aimed at gaining a better understanding of the sites’ fauna and flora and taking appropriate action whenever necessary.

CERN’s parks and woodlands offer an attractive environment for rich biodiversity. Be sure to catch a glimpse of this side of CERN on your next visit to the laboratory.