The answer is definitely to bee….and needless to say, all puns intended!
When out and about and mingling with people, all sorts of interesting stories crop up, and recently, while chatting to a new acquaintance, we discovered that he had a particular tale to tell. Francesco Ferrari, 55, lives in Oriano, a hamlet near Solignano – a town approximately 60km from Bedonia, on the way to Parma. During the week, he works as a sales agent for a company which deals in food products, a job which takes him all around the country, and sometimes abroad. But when the weekend finally comes around, he gets to do what he likes best – looking after his bees!
Francesco’s story began with his grandparents, who, after the second world war, started up 4 or 5 hives as an amateur project which, however, given the lack of sugar at the time, was also a necessity; the honey produced by the bees was the only source of sweetener available. Following the death of grandpa, Francesco’s mother took over, but after 1986, when the Chinese varroa parasite made its appearance and sadly killed off most of the bees, only a couple of “families” survived.
Francesco had observed and assisted his grandfather in the care of the beehives as a young lad, and had picked up a few notions. His mother and a local expert beekeeper taught him the rest, and so it was that 15 years ago, he took the bees and their well-being into his own hands (not literally!) and threw himself into this new project. He began by purchasing 5 “families”, just to see how it went – he now owns 50 of them, and is planning to add 20 more shortly.
When Francesco talks about his bees, he beams with enthusiasm, happy to have an eager audience…….he explained that in the month of May, the bigger families produce a new queen bee in order to double up; the elderly bees go off with the old queen whilst the youngsters remain with the new one. If that doesn’t happen, Francesco buys queen bees (yes, you can actually buy them!) from specialized keepers, and proceeds to do the job himself. Apparently, bees are sold in kilos, but one queen can cost around $17!…nobility is expensive! But the queen bee is absolutely vital to the hive; without her, the whole family dies within 30 to 40 days……
Francesco lives in a rural area, scattered with wild fields and flowers of many kinds; in May, June and July, 4 different kinds of honey are produced – acacia, lime, chestnut and multi-flower. But he has plans to produce phacelia honey too. Phacelia mellifera is a wild plant with purple flowers, which bees make a beeline for – who would have thought!! The end product is a considerably high quality honey, much appreciated by experts in the sector. In collaboration with a friend, the idea is to sow a large field with lentils, along with phacelia seeds, and when the plants bloom, Francesco intends to place 15 or so hives along the border of the field, in order to allow the bees to stock up on their nectar. He is very eager to see what the results will be..
So, we asked, what does the beekeeper’s work actually entail? Each season has its particular tasks; now, in the cold months, it’s necessary to make sure that the bees have sufficient food to get through the winter, and if they don’t, they are given candied sugar. From April to May, the families have to be checked every week, to determine whether a new queen has been produced; if this is the case, either she will go with a newly-formed family in another hive, or, if the old queen is not producing enough eggs any more, she instead may be removed. In May, when acacia plants start to flower, honey production begins, and the frames are placed on top of the hives, then replaced by empty ones once they are full. These frames are used by the bees to store any excess honey, whereas whatever remains inside the hives is necessary to the bees themselves as nourishment. The honey is then extracted by centrifuging and matured in steel containers for a few weeks before being ready to eat. At the end of summer, new rounds are made to check whether or not the bees have sufficient stock for the winter, and the families are ultimately treated with an anti- varroa substance.
Bees also produce royal jelly, which is a honey bee secretion, used exclusively as nutrition for the adult queens. It can cost up to $900 a kg. And propolis, a complex resin, helps to keep the beehive sterile and infection-free, but is mainly known for its therapeutic potential. But these are generally produced by professional beekeepers, since they are time consuming activities, and Francesco unfortunately doesn’t have that time.
He obviously approaches his bees with the appropriate protection – we asked whether it’s true that bees recognize their keepers, and refrain from stinging them. Apparently not, just a legend. They are simply creatures who want to get on with their busy lives, and if you disturb them – they will let you know, in no uncertain terms – you are not appreciated!