Colony collapse disorder is a worldwide problem, and in Trentino, Italy, Ferrari Winery is combating the problem by raising bees onsite to help pollinate the array of plants in the vineyards. Grapevines are self-pollinating, but the vines thrive in a biodiverse atmosphere with plants that rely on honeybees for their survival.
During my visit to Ferrari, I saw the hives kept in the centuries-old garden at Villa Margon. The villa is surrounded by acres of vineyards. The bees are kept in top-bar hives, a hive design I wasn't familiar with. Ferarri's vineyard manager and beekeeper Paolo Fontana took a few of us into the garden for an up-close look at the top-bar hives, and it was an experience worth sharing.
A top-bar hive has a simple design. It's basically a horizontal wooden box with bars running across the top that can be easily removed. The box has holes in it for the bees to enter and exit. When they are inside, the honeybees build individual honeycombs on each bar that hang straight down. When a bar is lifted out, the honeycomb comes with it.
An empty top-bar hive. (Photo: Jordan Schwartz/Flickr)
This is what a top-bar hive looks like before it's populated with bees. See how simple the design is? Compared to the Langstroth hive, vertical boxes that stack together that I'm used to seeing everywhere (including in the White House gardens), top-bar hives are lightweight, easy to work with, and less disruptive to the bees. They can be built out of any wood.
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Horizontal top-bar hives are the ideal type of hive for regions where the population does not have the money or resources to work with a vertical box hive that requires extraction equipment to harvest the honey, smokers to calm the bees when the hives are disturbed, and full protective bee gear for safety. Fontana explained to us that there are organizations that work with the people of Africa to help them build these hives so that they can improve their agriculture using the resources they already have — wood.
This honeycomb is just about ready to harvest. You can see the honey filling the holes of the comb at the bottom. When Fontana lifted this one bar out of the hive, the rest of the bars — and the bees working on the honeycombs on those bars — were left basically undisturbed.
All that's needed to harvest the honey from a top-bar hive is a knife and something to press the honey out of the honeycombs. Fontana brought these honeycombs up from the hive to our group and extracted the honey in front of us.
In addition to pressing raw honey out of the combs for us to sample, Fontana left some of the honey in chunks of honeycomb for us to try. I'm always up for a new culinary experience, so I popped one of these fresh, raw, sweet bits into my mouth. I was dazzled by the flavor and texture, and for a moment thought, "I need to keep bees." (That moment passed quickly.)
Although working with top-bar hives does not require full protective beekeeping gear, we were asked to don these fashionable outfits for our own safety because we aren't used to working with bees. I'm on the left. My partners in this bee adventure are Rina Bussell, Assistant Wine Director at Spago, Beverly Hills, and Cortney Lease, Company Wine Director at Seattle's Wild Ginger and The Triple Door.
The hives we saw in the gardens at Villa Margon are not the only ones kept at the villa. They are placed around the property and the workers check on them regularly. A few days before we arrived, workers found one of the hives destroyed, and a large, honey-soaked paw print left behind as a calling card by a full-bellied bear. We were told the story several times by several different members of the Ferrari family. Each person had a big smile while relaying the tale of the vineyard's own personal Winnie-the-Pooh. At Ferrari, they consider losing a hive to one of the region's natural inhabitants a sign they're doing things right — preserving the biodiversity of the vineyards and strengthening the honeybee population in the region.