Sunday, August 14, 2011


I know it is possible to raise bees and make honey in America.  I even have friends that do it in Washington, DC.  But in reality it can't be done.  Just like we could flamenco dance when we go out at night.  It just isn't who we are.

But bee keeping and making honey, just like growing fig trees, frying zucchini flowers and taking a nap in the hot afternoon sun, is part of the natural rhythm here in Italy.  It is a part of our life here at our villa, in part because we are an agriturismo - a vacation farm house with a working farm.  We grow tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, peppers, basil, sage and more in our garden.  We have fig, apricot, date, walnut and other trees.  Each season we harvest some crops in our modest sized fields - onions, alfalfa, chick peas or tall fields of sunflowers.

But here in Italy everyone gets into the act.  Everyone has his own garden.  Everyone cures his own prosciutto, ages his own cheese.  Everyone, it seems, has his own hive and makes his own honey.

Perhaps that is a slight overstatement, but here in Umbria, at least, it seems everyone you talk to has his own hive or his own prized garden.  It is what they do.  It is who they are.

* * *

This was our second year raising bees.  One day a couple of years ago two wooden hives, two green painted, house-shaped wooden boxes, about a foot and a half high, appeared on the perimiter of the villa compound.  They were put there by Marco, the young Italian man who helps run the villa and who, growing up in Umbria has been steeped in the tradition of beekeeping, asparagus foraging and truffle hunting.  His father, our good friend Lodovico, a retired former pharmaceutical company employee grew up in the southern part of Umbria, where his brother still lives today, listening to and following the cycles of nature.  It is a way of life that he has instilled in his son, who is still in the process of developing this special gift, fighting against the tides of "progress" - Americanization - that would replace a lifestyle in sync with nature with one that values technology and isolation from the natural world.  It is interesting to daily watch how he reconciles the modern with the traditional.  He does a good job at it.

So two years ago Marco started our first effort to raise bees and make honey.  Every trip here I excitedly crept near the beehives, feeling them swarm around me even when they didn't, fascinated by the mass of buzzing bees that clung to the outside of their houses.  I had no idea what was going on inside, but watched with amazement as dozens of bees would enter the small passageway at the bottom of the hive and another dozen would emerge and fly off, presumably to collect pollen at some nearby favorite watering hole.

Our first season of beekeeping was entirely unsuccessful.  No honey was produced, or so at least I was led to believe.  One day when I asked Marco when he would collect the honey, he replied that there would be none this year.  He did not explain anything else, just cryptically saying the bees did not produce.  At least our luck was better than his father's, though, who suffered a colony collapse and ended up with an empty hive.

This year, then, I was determined to keep better tabs on the progress of our hive and honey.  Each trip to the villa I would talk to Marco about how things were going with the bees and my frequent visits to the hive confirmed that at least one of the two hives was thriving, a huge knot of bees sunning themselves on the front wall of their green chalet, non-stop activity in and out of the hive.  At the beginning of this trip Marco reported that they seemed to be working hard and making honey.  We were only a couple of weeks away from our first harvest.

Earlier this week when I asked Marco when he though would be B Day he replied later in the week and when we met at Lodovico's house for a lovely party later in the week he told me that I could borrow Lodovico's beekeeper suit if I wanted to help out.  I was already flying pretty high at Lodovico's party, but this sent me off the edge.

* * *

The next morning a rap on my window awoke me at 7am, announcing that the early morning honey harvest was about to begin.  I emerged a few minutes later, realizing I knew nothing about the process, showing up in shorts and sandals, which would not provide quite the level of protection as the thick shirt and attached mesh helmet.  I found some long pants and shoes, but was a little worried that I had only ankle socks, no long socks, hoping the pants would not ride up too much leaving my ankles exposed to the bees.

Slipping the beekeeper's suit over my head and emerging inside the screened in helmet for the first time was a feeling that I shall never forget.  You see the world in a different way when you are looking out through the screen, the world broken into a million tiny square windows not unlike a fly's eye.  As I approached the hive, the roof of which Marco had already removed, which raised the ire of the colony, the buzzing was palpable and time seemed to slow down.  The angry bees swarmed everywhere, landing on our arms and legs and walking along the screen of the helmet.  But Marco spoke in calm tones, telling jokes in his excellent English (I don't think the bees understood, but it kept my nervousness in check), moving deliberately but purposefully.

Throughout he pumped smoke onto the colony from a teapot like dispenser, a bellows on the back which would propel smoke where aimed.  This magic substance slowed down the bees and made them mostly docile, allowing us to work to pry up the vertically stacked wooden frames that were inside the top floor of the bee house, and which the bees had used to create honeycombs which had been filled with honey and sealed with wax.  Marco pried up a wooden frame, I would apply a bit of smoke to the mass of bees that covered the honeycomb and he would lightly brush them off of it and into the hive.  The comb was then placed in a plastic box that was covered to keep the bees from discovering it and re-defending it.

This process was repeated over and over until all of the combs were removed.  We then moved into the house where a large stainless steel cylinder, about two feet in diameter and three feet high stood.  We took the wooden frames and gently removed the wax covering from the ends of the combs with a knife, basically slicing off the cap on each side of the comb, and quickly inserted the oozing frames into the canister where they slid into place standing upright and radiating from a central core.  After each of the frames had been uncorked and placed in the canister, the top was closed and I cranked a handle which caused the entire core to rotate.  The canister was a large centrifuge and as the frames began to spin the honey in each comb was forced out and onto the side of the can, where it oozed down to the bottom.  In about ten minutes the honeycombs were empty, each frame weighing a fraction of what it had just minutes before, and the bottom of the cannister was full of honey.

We then put the cannister on a table and placed a smaller cannister below it.  Opening the valve of the centrifuge, honey began to stream in thick ribbons into the storage cannister, first passing through a seive to strain out bits of wax and honeycomb and, perhaps, the occaisional bee that had been trapped in this process.  By now all of the villa's guests were awake and watching this spectacle, dipping their fingers in the running stream of honey and oohing and aahing about the taste.  It was truly a moment of pure joy for all.

* * *

Several days later, as I write about this, our pantry is stocked with dozens of jars of honey.  Home made honey from La Fattoria del Gelso.  Even as the buzzing sound in my ears fades into memory, I still enjoy walking into the pantry and just look at the jars.  My jars.  Marco's jars.  Our bee's jars.  It is a satisfaction that I have never really felt before.  One I never got drafting contracts or writing legal briefs.  Not when doing well on a math test or even when having an excellent meal in a restaurant.  This satisfaction comes not from the doing or the accomplishing, but from the being.  From the connection.  I rarely feel it at home but often feel it here in Italy, here in Umbria.  A place where the bees helped put the be in human being.

Ci vediamo!
Bill and Suzy


Barbara said...

I didn't know you were raising bees - wonderful! I tried to watch the video but when I clicked on it I got the message "this video is private"!

Bill Menard said...

Thanks, Barb. It should be viewable now.