In June 2021, Guido Berlucchi adopted 50 beehives, each with about 30,000 resident bees, and positioned them beneath the line of mulberry trees in the Brolo vineyard.
Each hive houses more than 30,000 bees of Apis mellifera ligustica, more commonly known as the Italian bee, a particularly gentle and hard-working subspecies widespread in our area.
Their work will significantly enrich our vineyard biodiversity, which is of fundamental importance, since an ecosystem with a rich diversity of plant and animal species is a healthier environment, one that will find its own equilibrium naturally, with increasingly less intervention by man. Viticulture, after all, is a monoculture, in which man intervenes in the terroir, growing grapevines for their crop. So, introducing into the vineyard ecosystem as much variety of flora and fauna as possible helps return it to a situation of natural balance.
The pollinating activity of bees, in particular, ensures the proliferation of plant species, which, in turn:
• Attract and host new insects;
• Aerate the soil with their roots and facilitate the expansion of the vine’s root apparatus;
• Act as natural fertiliser for the vineyard, once their life cycle is completed.
-Our viticultural activities do impact the local growing area, so re-introducing the honeybee is a positive action that helps to rebalance the natural ecosystem and to restore the environment.
-The bee is vineyard-friendly in other ways as well. It does not attack the ripening berries, but if they break open for some natural reason—as a result of hail impact, for instance, or through being bitten by a wasp or other insect—the bee can suck the droplets of juice, leaving the rest of the cluster intact and dry, safe from fungal or mould attacks.
– In addition, the bees gather propolis, which has strong antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties; recent studies suggest that the application of propolis on the grapevine itself helps to repel pathogens.
– Bees perform an extremely important role in nature. While they are sucking the nectar of flowers, the pollen sticks to them, which they transfer to the next flower they visit, which is thus pollinated. Over 80% of flowering wild plant species and over 70% of cultivated foodstuffs need insect pollinators as vectors for their reproduction cycles.
“Not everyone knows that behind every cherry, melon, or apple there is the silent, hard-working labour of a bee.”
The hive boxes can be seen from the entrance to the vineyard; they are painted yellow or blue because those colours are most easily recognised by bees.
Bees can fly as far as 3km from their hive in search of flowers for nectar. They are not aggressive and sting only to protect themselves.
Each hive contains 8-10 frames of smooth wax on which the bees themselves will produce the wax for their honeycombs, a structure of perfectly hexagonal cells where the bees will deposit either their eggs—in the brood comb, in the bottom of the hive—or their honey—in the honey comb. Each hive can produce approx. 200kg of honey per year.
Each hive usually has one queen, the only fertile female; 20,000-100,00 workers, sterile females whose job is to maintain and protect the colony; and—between April and July, in Europe—from 500 to 2,000 males (drones) whose sole purpose is reproduction. These three groups can be physically distinguished from each other.
The extraordinarily-prolific queen has the responsibility of depositing eggs—up to 2- to 3,000 per day—and of ensuring colony cohesion; she is physically larger than the workers and drones and has a stinger, which she uses almost exclusively to kill rival queens, her sisters. In contrast to the workers, she has no apparatus for gathering pollen. She can live as long as 4 or 5 years, but never leaves the hive, and her pheromones attract the colony and keep it cohesive. The eggs for the queen and the female workers are identical, but the larva of the future queen is nourished with royal jelly throughout all its development, while the worker bee will be given it for only three days.
The male drones have the sole duty of fertilising the new queens; they are larger than the workers but smaller than the queen. They are unable to suck nectar from the flowers or gather pollen, lacking the appropriate apparatus, as well as a stinger. They are born only in the spring, from non-fertilised eggs.
The workers form a homogeneous caste and perform various social tasks, according to their different age categories, which correspond to cycles of exocrine gland development and regression. They live an average 30-45 days, or longer if the bee is born in autumn and therefore hibernates over the winter. The workers possess extraordinary abilities, such as transmitting information through a kind of symbolic language.
In addition, they perform a variety of tasks in an orderly succession of roles, depending on their age. The first task of the young worker, after it emerges from the cell in which it developed, is to clean and smooth the cells being built or those that are to be re-used; although she is fertilised only once in her life, the queen bee untiringly deposits her eggs in these cells. Once the worker becomes able to produce royal jelly, it takes on the job of nourishing the larvae. After the second week, when it ceases producing nourishment and starts secreting wax, it moves on to constructing combs. Next, its work shifts to outside the hive, first dedicated to protecting it, then as a collector of nectar, pollen, propolis, and water. In this role, she is able to transmit precise information to her sister-workers regarding the exact location of a food source, even as far away as approx. 3 kilometres, communicating data regarding the relative positions of a flower source, the hive, and the sun. Its ability to perceive polarised light allows it to fix the sun’s position, even if it is covered with clouds, as long some clear sky can be seen. Just a bit longer than a month from birth, it takes up household duties, such as airing and warming the hive, cleaning and defending it, etc. When it feels the end of its life coming near, it leaves the colony and dies a distance from it, in order not to contaminate the hive.
The queen mates only once in her life. In the spring, at 5-6 days after emerging, she takes her nuptial flight, during which she mates with drones, and a few days later she begins to lay her eggs, in larger numbers in spring and summer, and on the hotter days. She lays one egg per cell.
For two days, all the larvae are fed royal jelly, then the drone and worker larvae are given mostly honey and pollen, while the queen larvae continue to be nourished with royal jelly. As they develop, each larva moults 5 times; its cell is sealed with wax and the enclosed larva weaves itself a thin cocoon around itself, inside of which it becomes a pupa. The pupa undergoes a complete metamorphosis, then chews open the cell with its mandibles to emerge as a young bee. Each caste has a different growth period.
The queen usually fertilises all the eggs, in a way that only workers are born. Only in the spring does she not fertilise a certain number, which will bear males; they will live just until they mate with her. During the same period, she lays eggs in larger cells that will become other queens.
With the laying of haploid (unfertilised) eggs, which will become drones, and of diploid eggs in the larger (royal) cells, the queen is indicating to the workers that the time is approaching when part of the hive population must be ready to swarm, or to found a new colony, and to the workers who remain that there will soon be larvae to feed.
The old queen stops producing eggs, and when the royal cells are about to open, preparations for the swarming begin. The bees that will swarm load up enough honey or 5-6 days, which will be needed to sustain hyper-nourishing for the initial production of wax for the new combs. The swarming bees also take with them a certain quantity of propolis. Finally, the old queen gathers a part of her population and leaves to found another hive.
Honey: “Honey is the sweet natural substance that the Apis mellifera bee produces from the nectar of plants, or from secretions from the living parts of plants, or from substances secreted by sucking insects found on the living parts of plants. They collect and transform these substances, combining them with their own substances, then they deposit, dry, and store them, allowing them to mature in the combs of the hive.”
Bees can produce up to 20kg of honey per year in each hive, storing it in the upper section of the hive. Removal of the honey consists in extracting the honeycomb frames from the hive, removing the layer of wax the seal the cells, and then putting the honey-filled frames in a centrifuge to separate the honey from the wax. During this operation, the beekeeper uses smoke to keep the bees in the hive, since the bees interpret the smoke as a signal of a nearby fire and stay in the hive.
Honey is used by the bees as food, which they produce in large amounts; only preceding winter do they have to leave a small amount as a food reserve for the hive during the winter dormancy.
Honey can be monofloral or multifloral. In the case of the former, the hive is placed near the selected plant species, e.g., chestnut or acacia trees, and the comb frames are kept empty until the onset of flowering. Once flowering is complete, the honey is removed from the frames before the bees begin to store honey from the next flowering period.
Royal jelly: Royal jelly is a secretion produced by worker bees used as nourishment for all the bee larvae (up to three days old) and for the queen bee for all her life. Bees use honey and pollen to produce it, mixed with a bit of their saliva. In apiculture, it is one of the most prized products of the hive. Over the 5-6 months of the summer season, one hive can produce about 500kg of royal jelly, and since it degrades quickly, it must be refrigerated immediately and at a low humidity. Nutritionally, it is a very rich: fresh, high-quality royal jelly is called for in cases of malnutrition or for babies with low appetites.
Pollen: Plants produce pollen for their own reproduction. When bees enter the flower to suck the nectar, their bodies become covered with pollen, which is then deposited in the next flower visited. At the entrance to the hive, brushes clean the pollen from the bees before they enter; over 1kg per day can be gathered in this manner. This pollen can furnish valuable data regarding, for instance, biodiversity over time, pollution level, and air quality.
Propolis: Propolis is a resinous substance collected by bees from the buds and bark of plants, which they then use, combined with wax, as a construction material. Propolis has numerous properties beneficial for human heath as well as other uses.