The Honeycomb, Perfect And Fragile As The Planet Itself

Can the damage to honey production from climate change be undone? We asked Apicoltura Miceli's Roberta Gigliotti.

Photo courtesy of Apicoltura Miceli, Lamezia Terme.

Is climate change solely to blame for the honey crisis that is making headlines ever more frequently? The balance of the bee habitat is such that, with only minimal human intervention, bees will go on giving us the greatest bounty, the most precious commodity that nature can provide — honey. And they will go on doing what they’ve always done: being man’s intermediary with nature. The chain is perfect in every link, nothing is superfluous, nothing is wasted, nothing is overlooked. Yet, just as importantly, it is so delicate that even the slightest alteration in the process will inevitably vary the outcome.

The bee world has been studied, tampered with, modified, and all with the aim of producing more of what we consider a superfood, a miracle food some might say, for its antibacterial and antiviral properties to boost immunity and fight sickness. In Celtic mythology, bees were regarded as having great wisdom and acted as messengers between worlds, able even to travel to the otherworld, bringing back messages from the gods. In the western isles of Scotland, bees were thought to embody the ancient knowledge of the druids.

Globally fluctuating populations; losses of managed honey bee colonies; honey bee diseases and parasitology; modified alternatives to natural honey; Save the Bees; drop/rise in temperature disastrous for bees. Headlines along these lines forecasting the almost irreversible decline of the honey bee over the last 10 years are shocking. So, too, is the list of people working away as busy as the proverbial bees to protect habitats, livelihoods, the very patrimony of the bee world. This can only give the world hope and belief that it’s not too little, too late.

There are, indeed, more positive signs. Scientists are now scrambling to try to find the answer to why bee populations, the ‘geese that have always laid the golden eggs’, are declining. The general public is becoming more aware and is starting to understand human reliance on pollinators and the role they play in the global food chain. Yes, many are reading up and are wondering if anything can be done to save a species on which much of agricultural and commercial activity relies. Shoppers are even beginning to question the quality of cheap honey on supermarket shelves and wonder about the real value specials like €0.99 offers on honey provide.

What does it mean when we read a sweeping statement about climate change causing the loss of bee habitats?

Why bees matter

I spoke about the ‘Bee Question’ with Roberta Gigliotti, bee farmer of the family owned Apicoltura Miceli in Lamezia Terme owned by Roberta’s mother, Fulvia Miseli. Roberta is a regional counselor of FAI Calabria (Federazione Apicoltori Italiani). She is knowledgeable and passionate about the topic and, needless to say, somewhat despondent about the future. Apicoltura Miceli is symbolic of what’s happening in honey bee farming all over Italy and not only at microenterprise level.

honey crisis
Photo courtesy of Apicoltura Miceli, Lamezia Terme.

We begin with this very question: can we blame the bee crisis on climate change?

Roberta says, “Climate change is one of the causes of the death of bees as it inevitably compromises flowering and harvesting. Climate change is affecting our whole ecosystem. Let’s face it, in a world that’s waking up — almost daily — to catastrophic flooding, wildfires, desertification, and marine disasters, some people might say, what’s one more problem? Having said that, there is one pressing issue that could make a difference if dealt with professionally right now in this difficult context — pesticide control.”

“Bees move from flower to flower in search of nectar, their food for sustenance and survival,” she continues. “As they do so, they transfer pollen, those yellow grains that help fertilize plant cells between flowers. Very few plants self-pollinate so the carriers are fundamental. The bees pollinate flowers that are most likely already contaminated with pesticides. There are strict controls, and rightly so, on the labeling of products in a business such as ours but there must be equally strict controls on the biggest culprit of all where the bee crisis is concerned — chemical pesticides.

Let’s imagine my neighbor spraying his olive or fruit trees, his vine rows or his cabbages with weed killer or fungicide and he doesn’t adhere strictly enough to regulations on when, where, how much, and how often to use these wind and water borne products or, worse, he doesn’t know the damage his spraying is causing. Why is this relevant to my bee farming? It has been proven that, depending on the quantity and type of pesticide, the bees get disoriented and may die of hunger. Is there the political will to address this issue? And, of course, there must be investment in research to find and promote safe and cost efficient alternatives to these pesticides across the whole agricultural sector. One solution could come from the bees themselves.”

Looking for answers with propolis

She reaches for a bottle of propolis, or propoli in Italian, on the shelf behind her.

“You know that honey isn’t the only thing that bees make. They also produce a compound called propolis from the sap on needle-leaved trees or evergreens. When they combine the sap with their own discharges and beeswax, they create a sticky, resinous product used as a coating to build their hives. Propolis, or bee glue, is used as a sealant for unwanted open spaces in the beehive.

Thousands of years ago, ancient civilizations used propolis for its medicinal properties. The Greeks used it to treat abscesses. Assyrians put it on wounds and tumors to fight infection and help the healing process. Egyptians used it to embalm mummies. The bees themselves kill and embalm little animals, maybe tiny lizards that invade the comb. The bees are not good transporters like the ants so they cover the dead invader with glue thus eliminating the risk of infection among themselves.

The composition of propolis can vary depending on the location of the bees and what trees and flowers they have access to. For example, propolis from Europe won’t have the same chemical makeup as propolis from Brazil. This can make it difficult for researchers to come to general conclusions about its health benefits notwithstanding the past and present evidence attesting to its validity. Agricultural propolis is one of those affordable natural products that are becoming popular as a pesticide and many farmers are using it. It’s also used in biological farming. Again, legislation and bureaucratic practice must be simplified and promoted in order for this alternative to become convenient and mainstream.”

Confusing honey with money

We discuss the balance needed for bee farming. A delicate harmony that I dare say is perhaps the nearest we can get to perfection in nature and that has lasted unchanged from time immemorial. A harmony, I seem to understand, now threatened by pure and simple greed. Roberta continues with her own barrage of questions. Increased bee productivity cycles decrease their life span. Who will pollinate? Reduced natural habitats have given way to urbanization. Where will nature continue to find the conditions to thrive? There’s a severe lack of raw material. How will biodiversity survive? Change in seasonal weather patterns. Can producers go on artificially feeding? And, most pressing of all, is human intervention to save the bees doing more harm than good?

I can see her frustration at the reality she’s describing.

“Let me give you an example of ‘bee slavery’ from the USA,” Roberta shares. “Farmers whose almond crops need pollination are now ‘renting’ colonies from beekeepers who truck them around the country. Can you believe this? The beekeepers place the colonies in an unknown environment adjacent to the farmer’s crop during the 3–6 week bloom period. Due to a huge increase in almond consumption, the early bloom period is a win-win situation. US beekeepers winter their colonies in southern states and take advantage of favorable winter climates. Colonies can be kept stronger during warm winters and the farmers find they are ready to pollinate almond crops earlier and longer. The downside is again the overworking, the disorientation, and the death of millions of bees.”

Roberta underlines two urgent problems that need addressing: 1) the scarcity of honey and the subsequent flooding of the market with honey-like substitute that is convincing consumers that they are, for all intents and purposes, buying the real thing when it is anything but (it’s like putting powdered milk in an eye-catching bottle and selling it as fresh); 2) meeting the cost of bee maintenance during years of poor crop yield which makes the bee-resting winter months harder to face.

“It’s not economically viable for the individual bee farmer or even a consortium of farmers to deal with the problems of poor returns for two or three years in a row. Safeguarding our territory and its biodiversity cannot be the responsibility of an individual or even of a group of like-minded individuals. We simply don’t have the means to intervene in order to restore conditions in the countryside for the bees to heal and recover. If it’s to be considered a priority, it must be done on a blanket scale now. We’re running out of time.”

Photo courtesy of Apicoltura Miceli, Lamezia Terme.

Glimmers of hope

I take my leave feeling privileged that Roberta has welcomed me into her world and into her family’s daily grind of making ends meet. I appreciate her conviction that, in spite of the odds, people like her, who know the reality of this crisis, have to make their voices heard. I remark on her evident pride in her family’s creation of this business, and thank her for opening up to Italics Magazine about the uphill struggle they’re facing. She sounds slightly nostalgic as she tells me that, before COVID-19 blocked such activities, groups of school children and their teachers paid regular visits to Miceli, and many of them have since adopted the bee as their class symbol.

As she kindly gifts me some Miceli products — honey vinegar, licorice flavored herbal tea and the noted propolis — she quips, “The bees didn’t create this problem, but they are offering us their contribution to the solution.”

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