Bee-keeping in the Mountains - Our Visit With A Local Bee-keeper in the Alps

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Saturday 3 October 2015

Bee-keeping in the Mountains - Our Visit With A Local Bee-keeper in the Alps

Today we had a very interesting afternoon with a local bee-keeper we had met during our time in the Queyras who had very kindly invited us to pay a visit to some of his hives and learn a little more about the craft of mountain bee-keeping and the production of honey. Honey is something we enjoy occasionally in our own diet and having sampled his incredibly tasty and diverse honeys from the market we were especially excited, if a little nervous, about the idea of visiting and learning more. Here's how we got on....

Our visit began with a trip into the foothills of the mountains around the village of L'Argentière-la-Bessée between Guillestre and Briancon. Situated in a small clearing just outside of the village we arrived in the bee-keepers van to find a collection of a few dozen cube shaped hives dotted around and what looked like quite a few bees buzzing around already. However, we had been assured that visiting in the afternoon the bees were likely to be less aggressive although the lack of flowers this late in the year could make them a little more aggressive as well...we'd just have to see. Being told he got stung almost every day was making us a little nervous though, as were the answers to the questions we kept firing at him, such as the fact a hive can contain up to 50,000 bees.

Stepping outside we donned our protective outfits, making sure all of the zips and fastenings were done up and there was no skin on display as we were told "the bees are very good at finding little holes". While we were getting dressed our friend also prepared a smoke dispenser which, he explained, was to mask the scent and pheromones of the bees. Apparently when a bee stings you it releases pheromones that say "attack" to other nearby bees so the purpose of the smoke is to mask that and hopefully ensure as few stings as possible. Of course, all of this was making us feel even more nervous as the idea of even one sting wasn't too appetising and we had no idea what to expect once a hive was opened.

So, we headed over to the first hive and knelt down away from the hive exit as our friend lifted the lid and began to remove the layers of honeycomb inside, all absolutely smothered in bees working away. Even though we'd been told how many there could be the sight of tens of thousands of bees, several thousand of which immediately began to buzz around us, land on us and bump into our protective clothes, was an awesome and slightly scary sight, plus it was hot work inside such thick clothes Apparently in the summer a long day under these heavy layers could be very tough! As our bee-keeper friend calmly removed the layers in search of eggs and a queen to show us, we continued to ask lots of questions about how the hive works and the answers were fascinating.

For example, each hive only has one queen. When the old queen is dying the eggs are fed 'Royal Jelly' instead of nectar and then the offspring will be queens instead of 'workers', i.e. they will have reproductive organs. However, only the first to hatch will survive as she will promptly kill all of the others. Also, male bees are in short supply and only perhaps 20 or so live in the hive purely to keep the queen producing eggs, which is all she will do for the 3-5 years of her life while the other female workers collect pollen to keep the hive fed. During the high summer a queen can be laying up to 2000 eggs per day as the food is abundant, but during winter she can stop completely, which is why our friend was struggling so much to find any eggs, although on the third hive we visited he did find one, plus a queen who had been marked with a yellow dot on her back and was slightly larger than the others while wandering across the honeycomb.

One of the most interesting aspects of bee-keeping, we learned, was that to start a new hive the bee-keeper will select queen eggs from an existing hive and use them to populate an empty one. However, the selection is critical as they try and develop hives with low aggression but high productivity. Also, bees from one hive cannot enter another or they will be killed....unless the hive is very new and the bee-keeper masks their scent with lavender in which case it can be possible. It was all incredibly interesting.

Spot the Queen bee of this hive (she's marked with a yellow dot and is slightly larger):

Plus, as we spent more time with the bees and seeing how calm and in tune with his bees our friend was we were also able to relax more even to the point of holding a honeycomb layer, heavy with thousands of bees. As our friend explained, he can even do this with no gloves on when he is really in the moment as any mistake is immediately obvious from the stings he will get. He feels he can read the bees and they will tell him if he does something wrong and that he has a relationship with the bees in his hives. Keeping bees, for him, was a very mindful activity.

After the hives, and thankfully no stings to report, we then got to enjoy a trip to the Mielerie where the honeycombs are processed to extract the honey. Inside the smell of honey was strong and the sticky evidence of years of honey processing was everywhere, with stacks and stacks of honeycomb and beeswax clinging to the boxes the bee-keeper adds to each hive rather than harvest the bees 'own' honey that they live on. The boxes which he puts on top for his 'harvestable' honey are about a third of the size of the hive itself.

The honeycomb layers are first skimmed to remove the outer layer of wax then placed in a jumbo centrifuge to spin the honey out of them. After that the honey sits in a drum while remaining wax floats to the top then it is decanted off through a filter ready for putting into jars. There was no pasteurisation done here (to ensure the beneficial properties from the flowers in the honey are maintained), although the processing was at close to 50 degrees which we were told is the temperature in a hive. As we got to sample fresh honey straight from the beeswax we could really appreciate the distinct and subtle flavours derived from the different hives that comes from the different flowers close to the hives.

Throughout the year the bee-keeper has to move the hives to different areas, because of where the flowers are, to get the different flavours and during the time of our visit was busy moving his hives from all over the Alps to closer to the coast for winter. All of this has to be done at night when the bees are all inside and is very stressful as a broken down truck could mean half a million bees from 100 hives waking up in the middle of a sleepy village and heading outside when the sun comes up! The different flavours this produces are really distinct in the honey and is so different from the bland, ultra-sweet supermarket honeys we'd known in the past. He covers a large area, driving more than 50,000km in six months to visit, monitor the health, check and harvest from all of his 250 hives, including near Grenoble where he gets Lavender, Acacia and Chestnut honey, the Hautes-Alpes where he has hives in the valleys and at higher altitudes, and special places near the coast to get the Bruyere.

All in all we were with the bee-keeper for a little under 2 hours and the time just flew by. We had learned so much about bee-keeping and honey production and the craft and passion that goes into this small-scale, artisan production compared to the mass produced cheaper lines. Apparently it is even possible to make 'fake honey' now just using sugar and flavourings and some companies mix this with their honey to bulk it out without customers knowing! Being able to visit ourselves and enjoy the experience, just because we had met someone at the local market who was really passionate about their work and wanted to share it, was a real privilege.

One of the benefits of staying in one area for a long period is that we've been able to meet so many people like this who clearly love what they do and we have been very interested to learn a lot about different, traditional ways of life and trades. During the very high season it had been a little difficult as the people we had met wanted to tell us more but were so busy keeping up with the regular markets and work demands that there wasn't always time, but now in between the summer and winter seasons there is a really interesting opportunity for us to see the seasons changing and experience this area with a more local feel and pace of life.

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