Posts Tagged ‘Calabria’

A few things we have seen and experienced while at Lamirtia – our last wwoof farm in Italy.

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Honey Harvesting

To harvest honey, one cannot simply pick up the honey sections and go because they are covered in bees. The bees must first be removed by means of a leaf blower, or something similar. This sounds like it would be quite harsh on the bees, but in fact they don’t seem to mind very much at all.

First, we lifted and rotated the sections so that the pages were aligned vertically. This was tough as they weighed a lot and were high up – many hives had four honey sections stacked on them. Then, Ranuccio fired up the blower and blew away the bees. We loaded the bee-free honey sections into wheelbarrows and took them down to the van, which had to be done quite quickly before other bees had time to discover them.

We loaded 48 honey sections into the van on the first day, which was the maximum weight it could safely take. It took about three hours and was a very physically demanding job, sweat was dripping down my face and my suit was drenched by the time we finished.

The next day we took another 26 sections, leaving one behind for each hive so they have space and something to work on.

End of day 1:

Honey Extraction

Bees cover the honey combs with a layer of wax when they are full and the bees think they are ready to be stored (this can help a beekeeper know when the honey should be harvested). To extract the honey from the pages, this layer of wax must be removed. After that, the pages are simply loaded into a honey extractor, which spins fast so the honey flies out. Next, it is put through a strainer and into a big vat. If the properties of the honey are deemed to be good, this is all that needs to be done.

Some types of honey crystallise faster than others. For fast-crystallising honey, beekeepers often let the honey sit until it just starts to crystallise, then mix it vigorously to break up the crystals and spread them around. A lot of science happens which causes the honey to crystallise consistently throughout and creates a product that is much smoother and creamier than honey that is left to crystallise on its own. I believe this is called ‘creamed’ honey.

The moisture content of honey can also vary significantly based on the type and the environmental conditions. Honey that has too much water in it can ferment (mead!), so must be dehumidified.

Hive Moving

Moving the hives is fairly straight-forward: close the hives, load them into the truck, take to new location. The only catch is you must close the hives when all, or most, of the bees are in them, which is at night.

We went out with Ranuccio in the early evening to prep the hives for transport (lots of tape involved). Then, as dusk was setting in, Ranuccio closed them all up and we loaded them into wheelbarrows one at a time and brought them down to the van. Each hive is quite heavy and the lack of light and fear of tipping out tens of thousands of angry bees made things a bit stressful. The bees are not always so passive when you pick up their home, and there are always at least a few that get left out. I got a couple of bad stings.

After we loaded 11 hives into the van (the most it can fit without stacking them which is not a good idea). We setup a very basic camp nearby – no tents as the weather was nice, and tried to sleep.  The location was beautiful: abandoned stone farmhouse, stars twinkling in the sky, fireflies dancing around our heads. Unfortunately the ground was hard, there were loud night birds, and wild boar rustling around (we saw one!) which resulted in a not so great sleep.

We woke at the crack of dawn (5 am) the next morning, drove to the new location, loaded the hives into wheelbarrows again, took them to their spot (uphill this time) and opened the hives. It was quite exhausting work. This was repeated two more nights in a row to get all 33 hives done.

The new location is higher up the mountain in an area surrounded primarily by pine and fir trees as well as some chestnut which are still blooming due to the high elevation. The bees will produce honey that will be mostly for their own consumption, but Ranuccio expects to get a small harvest from some of them. This honey will be called millefiori (thousand flower), but will be very different from the millefiori produced in spring as the flowers are completely different.

Final sting count:

Ian – 13 (new ones on the index and ring finger of left hand, left ankle, left shin, and nose!)
Chloe – 6 (two stings on palm of right hand)

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Varroa Mite 

Varroa mites may be one of the biggest threats beekeepers face (See that? Pun avoided). They are parasites that live on and feed off bees. They are not very damaging to a large, strongly growing hive, but in autumn or winter, when the hive population is greatly reduced, the mites can take over and destroy the hive. The mites first showed up in Asia in 1904 and are now exist everywhere in the world except Australia. They are a big problem for beekeepers and must be destroyed.

Varroa mites on a bee:

(Image stolen from here: http://batelsbees.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/varroa-mite-infestation/)

Many beekeepers use synthetic chemicals or antibiotics to kill the mites, which is the easiest way to deal with them but is problematic: the chemicals aren’t exactly great for the bees, small amounts can get into the honey if they are not used properly, and the mites can become resistant to them. Also, it is not organic. Ranuccio uses oxalic acid, which is quite mild and considered organic because it occurs naturally (in small amounts) in things such as black tea and rhubarb. It is apparently effective at killing the mites without harming the bees.

There is a drawback to this method. If you spray the hives with oxalic acid, it will kill the mites on the living bees; however, the mites reproduce by laying their eggs in the hive’s larvae cells, which are subsequently covered up by the worker bees, thus protecting them from acid. So, when the larvae are born, the new mites come out with them, and all that spraying was for nothing.

The solution is to prevent the queen from laying any more eggs, wait 21 days (which is how long it takes for the eggs to be born) so that all the varroa mites are out and about on live bees, and then spray the oxalic acid. Varroa mites can easily spread from hive to hive especially when they are close together, so this must be done to all the hives at the same time.

To prevent the queen from laying eggs, she must be caught and put into a cage (the cage has slots that are big enough to let worker bees come in and feed her – it would be kind of like being in a restaurant with an all-day buffet that you are not allowed to leave for three weeks, probably not the worst punishment). This is not easy – the queen could be on any of the nine pages within the main hive section, and each page is crawling with bees.

Searching a page for the queen requires a huge amount of concentration, attention to detail, and, above all, patience. I was getting super frustrated just watching Ranuccio work. The queen is longer than the other bees, has a different shape, and is faster, so with practice one can get quite good at spotting her. There are also clues within the hive that can help narrow down the queen’s location. Noticing where eggs have been recently laid is the most obvious. She also sometimes communicates by ‘singing’, which can be heard if you listen closely.

It took Ranuccio approximately half an hour on average to complete each queen capture – remove all honey sections, go through each page (sometimes twice) until the queen is located, grab the queen by the abdomen with two fingers (quite tricky as she moves fast), put her in the cage, put hive back together. It took two days to do all 33 of them. Currently, there might still be mites in the unborn cells, so Ranuccio will spray the hives after they have been born, which is still a couple of weeks away.

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Beekeeping: acquire bees, collect honey, make money. How hard could it be?

In our short time here we’ve learned that beekeeping is in fact not so easy. Bees are complex creatures and it is not always possible to predict what they are going to do. Beekeepers need to try to stay one step ahead of the bees to ensure they are healthy, productive, and don’t buzz off. There are always some colonies that are not very productive, not very numerous, or not very healthy, and the reasons why are often not clear. Also, colonies will sometimes be inclined towards swarming (this is when the queen flies off with most of the bees to find a new home) so the beekeeper must try to prevent this. For example: going through the hive and destroying ‘royal combs’, which are queen bee larvae – the bees will not swarm if there is no new queen to take over. Then, the beekeeper needs to know what plants are flowering where and when so the bees can be placed in a productive area. And there are also diseases to worry about.

We’ve been lucky enough to be here at a time when a lot is going on. We’ve witnessed several important aspects of beekeeping including the creation of new colonies, honey harvesting, moving colonies to a new area, and organic treatment of the varroa mites.

New Colonies

To create a new colony, you need to find yourself some bees. The easiest way to do it is to take some from an existing hive, which is surprisingly simple. Most of Ranuccio’s hives are very full, and he wants to create a lot more colonies for next year, so we helped him create a new colony from each of his existing 33 hives.

First, we took two ‘pages’ from the main section of each hive, which is where the queen lays eggs. To access it, the honey sections on top must be removed, which can be hard work as a full section weighs over 20 kg. Also, the bees get their propolis in between sections, which is like glue. A metal thingy often needs to be used to pry the sections apart. Beekeeper’s use a smoker on the bees when taking apart hives – this calms and distracts them and makes them less likely to go into defense mode.

Once the main section is open, the two pages with the most eggs were taken out and put into the new hive and replaced with blank wax pages in the old colony so there are no empty slots. There are always plenty of bees working on the pages, so these bees become the start of the new colony.

Then we simply closed up the hives and took them to their new location. The bees still feel attached to their old homes so it is important that they are taken very far away (bees can fly several kilometres and have an impeccable sense of direction).

Next, the rest of the slots in the new hive are filled with either blank wax pages or pages with honey, saved from a previous season. And, of course, every hive needs a queen. Ranuccio bought 33 from a queen breeder. They come in small cages with a few other bees who feed her. The opening to the cage is blocked with a candy-like sugar, which the bees must eat through in order to get out. This sounds like a strange and cruel punishment, but is actually quite practical. The bees in the hive have just been taken away from their queen and are not going to accept a new one right away; they would likely kill the new queen if they had access to her. It takes a few days for them to eat through the cage, which gives them time to get accustomed to her. It does not guarantee they will accept her, but makes it much more likely.

New colonies in their new location (hive designs by us):

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New farm! Bees!

We’ve retraced our steps back to the mainland and up the Calabrian coast to a smallholding near the town of Altilia. See map:

The farm is in a beautitul and somewhat remote location, surrounded by oak woods with sweeping views of the Sila mountains.

Ranuccio, a young beekeeper, lives here with his mother Mirtia. They moved here two years ago from Tuscany. Ranuccio became interested in beekeeping several years ago, decided not to finish his philosophy degree and started a beekeeping apprenticeship with his friend’s father instead. He now has his own operation which currently consists of 33 hives.

In addition to bees they also have three dairy goats, a billy goat, a baby goat, a goat dog (like a sheep dog but for goats instead), three troublesome puppies, two cats, a bunch of rabbits, some chicken and geese. The also have two big veggie patches, some fruit and hazelnut trees which provide most of their food. Currently there are tons of zucchini coming out of the garden and Mirtia is doing everything she can to keep up. We’ve had it for pretty much every meal, but amazingly not the same way twice. Here is an example of one of Mirtia’s kitchen creations:

Okay, onto the bees:

As I said, he has 33 hives – each of which can hold up to 80,000 bees. They aren’t all full, but many are, so the total is somewhere in the low millions. We’re nearing the end of chestnut season. The hives are all in the middle of a big chestnut forest about an hour away. So far it has been a very good year for chestnut – the trees are blooming like crazy and the bees are making honey like crazy.

Ranuccio thinks he will get about 1500 kg of chestnut honey this year. Unfortunately, the bees are very aggressive because  the end of the season is approaching and they are trying to stock up, so full protective gear is obligatory. Ranuccio also produces orange honey in the spring, which is apparently much more pleasant because the bees are calm and it is not so hot.

We’ve only been to the bees once so far and there is not actually that much we can do other than help carry things. Beekeeping is surprisingly physical work, lots of heavy lifting involved. Mostly we just watched Ranuccio work. It’s very interesting stuff, we’ve learned plenty but have hardly scratched the surface really.

Back at the house we’ve been kept very busy – helping feed the animals and milk the goats (by hand, we’re not very good), building a food dryer and a new rabbit enclosure, collecting ferns and wild herbs, preparing ‘pages’ for the beehives (these are the building blocks which the bees use to create the hive and store honey, and they allow the beekeeper to take out single sections of the hive), and many other things.

Sting count after 1st visit to the bees:

Ian – 4 (all within a few seconds of each other on the hands and wrists, quite painful)
Chloe – zero

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