There are 45,513 Italian beekeepers, of which 26,541 produce honey for personal consumption and 18,972 for the commercial market. More than 1.1 million hives are listed in Italy's National Beekeeping Register. It is a sector that is worth over €2 million. And as honey consumption in Italy shows constant growth (up 5% in 2017), production slows due to drought, sudden temperature changes and climate change, all of which are damaging to the bees.
The Italian Market
According to data provided by Coldiretti, Italy’s largest agricultural association, the figures for honey produced in Italy in 2017 are conflicting. At over 20 million kilos in 2016, production dropped to little over 10 million as imports increased by 4% to over 23 million kilos. The three leading Italian regions for the number of apiaries are as follows: in first place is Lombardy (136,799), followed by Piedmont (113,325) and Emilia Romagna (104,556). Of the 1.1 million registered hives in Italy, 80% – around 900,000 – are with commercial beekeepers cultivating bees on a professional basis. These numbers, as the National Monitoring Network points out, highlight “the importance of this sector in the context of agricultural economics.”
Italy’s “varied climate and vegetation, in addition to the professionalisation of beekeeping, have lead to the development of highly skilled and difficult nomadism techniques, ensuring a wealth of honey that is globally unique,” says the Network. “In addition to infinite varieties of polyfloral honey – and the indescribable selection of colours, aromas and flavours of the flowers each region hosts – our country can count on over 30 monofloral honey varieties.”
Italy’s “varied climate and vegetation, in addition to the professionalisation of beekeeping, have lead to the development of highly skilled and difficult nomadism techniques, ensuring a wealth of honey that is globally unique.
The Beekeeping Profession
So how do you become a beekeeper? Not without hard work, that’s for sure. The profession requires an understanding that bees are extremely delicate living things. Thus, before trying to breed them you need a solid theoretical foundation.
You must therefore be acquainted with at least the basics of subject areas such as biology, ecology and botany. The various Italian beekeeping associations, from North to South, run regular training courses both for those who already have experience and for beginners. Such courses usually last several months and, beyond the theory, also offer practical instruction. Recently, for example, Oscar Farinetti’s FICO Foundation introduced courses on “Bees and Horticulture”, showing an understanding of the power of this sector within the wider landscape of Italian agricultural economics.
The theoretical portion of training is followed by a mandatory apprenticeship period of at least a season with a qualified beekeeper, for practical experience. Finally, you will need to purchase your first bee colonies and the necessary equipment. Naturally, this investment varies depending whether you intend to produce honey for personal consumption or commercially. The costs of installing your own beehive is as follows: a colony of bees including the hive and frame is anywhere between €150 and €350; it is around €100 for equipment (smoker, levers, separators, etc.) and the same again for year-round hive management (emergency food supplies, hive changes where necessary, treatment in the instance of disease).
Two rules are absolutely certain, says the Italian Beekeeping Federation (FAI).
Firstly, profitable beekeeping must run on a system of nomadism or, in other words, it must follow blossoming patterns. This involves moving the bees regularly.
Secondly, to be classed as a commercial activity, you need to have at least 100 apiaries.
Then there are some regulations you need to know: beekeeping is governed under civil, administrative and – if you wish to sell your honey – tax law. In Italy, declaring and providing geographical coordinates for apiaries is mandatory. Furthermore, to identify where to put the hives you must follow certain rules. You must know that the health of the bees falls to veterinarians and you require a vet’s authorisation, including for you to move the hives. In any case, the various Italian beekeeping associations can offer legal and bureaucratic support for beginners.
You cannot keep bees without hard work, that’s for sure. The profession requires an understanding that bees are extremely delicate living things. Thus, before trying to breed them you need a solid theoretical foundation.
Technology to the bees’ rescue
Continuous climate change, pollution and the arrival of foreign species in Italy mean that even those who are already experienced need to undergo constant training. “A beekeeper’s education is never complete,” explains Stefano Fenucci, CEO of Toscana Miele, a beekeeping association. Especially now that a rise in the new technologies available allows us to protect bees’ health to a much greater degree. The Internet of Things has brought us sensors that are already being used in agriculture today to monitor field health. This is transferable to beekeeping.
Each year, beekeepers lose around half of their hives. By placing thermometers and sensors inside the hives, as suggested by Italian startup 3Bee, for example, it is possible to monitor what is happening to the bees, even remotely by accessing the data on a smartphone. This allows beekeepers to intervene more quickly, meaning there is a need to use antibiotics only as a last resort. It is true that today bees would not survive without human intervention, however technology can help us reduce such intervention to only where it is necessary, thus also allowing us to protect our environment.
And Big Data could be central to the bees’ immediate future. If we can create a world database that allows all beekeepers to share their data, we could then begin to design predictive algorithms that will help contain the effects of disease and the increasing rates of climate change that are causing these insects to die.