Beekeeping as interpretation

31 July 2020

Beekeepers are influenced by the health of their bees and climate conditions. They’re like herders who live with their herd, following them in search of new pastures and blooms.

It’s a Monday in mid-July. The weather forecast was supposed to be quite good, but when we arrive the meteorological mood isn’t exactly friendly.

We’re in Valle Pellice, 800 meters above sea level, surrounded by woods of linden and chestnuts trees. It’s the home of a heroic agricultural tradition: the construction of terraces, dry walls, the cultivation of numerous varieties of potatoes, berries, and, in the last few years, even saffron. It’s also home to some unusual co-habitations: in the agritourism where we stop to eat the owners raise Angus cattle and Mora Romangola pigs wild.

Terra Madre Salone del Gusto presents How it’s made, videos dedicated to jobs related to food, cooking techniques and recipes. In this clip we introduce Lorenzo de Laugier, a beekeeper who works with our flying friends in the mountains of Piedmont, Italy. The full episode will be available from October 9.

Our guide, in the flesh (which needs reiterating at this point, after months of Zooms and other “digital meetings”) is Lorenzo De Laugier. In a previous life as an organizer of art exhibitions, he converted to beekeeping. And he did it so well, with such conviction and passion, that he entered the High Mountain Honeys Presidium—rhododendron, wildflower and fir honeydew—produced at an altitude of more than 1500 meters.

THE HEIGHTS

Photo: Azienda Agricola San Lorenzo 1776

But hold on a minute: what are we doing at 800 meters, if the Presidium is normally located at nearly double the altitude? At the height of summer we might expect to go higher up, yet the choice to stay at a lower altitude is a consequence of these times, where the weather is more erratic and unpredictable, and there’s no guarantee that the bees would be able to lead a normal life without excessive stress.

I spend a good part of the morning with Lorenzo—just enough time to go from Racconigi to Rorà—in a car that is infused with the perfume of honey and wax. In the meantime, my talkative guide tells me about the difficulties involved in his work. And there’s no shortage: pesticides and parasitic mites like varroa destructor can cause the destruction of entire colonies.

Then there’s the erratic climate. “It’s not the right year to bring the bees higher up. Now the temperature is too low, the bees would be subjected to needless stress, and it’s a luxury I can’t afford. If I were to do it, I’d need to provide them with extra sugar, give them supplementary food, but it would be like playing a shell game, and there’s nobody forcing me to do it.”

BEEKEEPERS AS HERDERS

“We beekeepers are conductors, we interpret the signals that we receive from the hive, and we model our actions according to them. At times, for examples, when they’re tightly packed they tell us they need space to be able to breed. And a beekeeper must ask themselves lots of questions: are they relaxed? Will they let us work? Are they agitated? Are they gathering nectar? Do they have problems with viruses or parasites? What information can we gather by visiting the hive? Is there a balanced relationship between the number of bees, the brood and the excess honey available?”

Mother nature works first: the hollow trunk of an old elm tree, a swarm of bees, the flowering of a linden tree; an ongoing story that came to life a few weeks ago. Photo: Azienda Agricola San Lorenzo 1776

Beekeepers are influenced by the health of their bees and climate conditions. They’re like herders who live with their herd, following them in search of new pastures and blooms.

As the beekeeper listens to the bees, so we like to listen to their stories about the bees, the beekeeping system regulated by a number of democratic mechanisms but also dictatorial, where the whole is of greater value than any single component. These are relationships to learn from, in terms of equilibrium and symbiosis, and the differences between queens, workers and drones: “In certain conditions it’s the worker bees who decide if the queen of the hive is up to the job, if she’s still able to control the nest with the pheromones she emits, or if she’s too old to maintain power. And if she’s not, then she needs to be killed in order to make space for a new queen.”

A TIMELESS MEMORY

Lorenzo recounts all of this while he moves around densely-populated honey supers with his bare hands, showing his competence developed both through study and years of practical experience, but which has distant beginnings. He remembers when, as a boy on his family farm in Racconigi, to to this day the home of San Lorenzo honey, an older beekeeper would give him pieces of fresh comb filled with warm honey. We taste a piece for ourselves: it’s smooth and incredibly sweet. We understand immediately why a food so rich, pure and perfect is a trigger for long-held memories, a Proustian madeleine.

by Silvia Ceriani, s.ceriani@slowfood.it

Lorenzo De Laugier is the protagonist of a How it’s made, a new format for Terra Madre Salone del Gusto 2020 dedicated to jobs related to food, cooking techniques and recipes. Watch the clip below! The full episode will be released on October 9, together with the other episodes in the series.

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