Bees, unexpected allies in the fight against hunger and poverty

Stefano Grazioli tells the story of his family business and explains the contribution that beekeepers and apiculture make to food production, family farming and to the environment.

Stefano became a beekeeper 12 years ago.  He explains that the venture came about by chance: "My father owned a piece of land and we knew a local man who had some bees, so we decided to give it a try with the aim of producing a little honey for home consumption". Stefano and his father bought two beehives which quickly multiplied and became ten.  Soon they had too much honey for private consumption so they began selling it locally. This enabled them to buy more equipment and invest further in the business.  In 2004, Stefano did a course in apiculture to learn more about the craft of beekeeping. It was around this time that he decided to leave his job as a salesman in the agricultural sector to dedicate himself to bees full-time.

A SELF TAUGHT BEEKEEPER

Stefano is keen to point out that he started from zero, he jokes: "I learnt from being stung over and over again!" Over time, he has learnt to respect these wild creatures by taking the appropriate precautions, using the correct equipment and above all, taking his time, "you can't be in a rush with bees, you need to wait for the right moment." he says.  At present, Stefano is producing honey in four locations in Italy including collaborating with A.A.I.S, the Association for Assistance and Social Integration, located in Bracciano, where he works with disabled children on the 'Apiabili' project. This project's aim is to teach disabled children how to manage an apiary, produce honey and, in turn, explain these processes to elementary school children. Working in various locations allows Stefano to produce various types of honey including chestnut, eucalyptus, linden and sunflower honeys. 

A WAY OF LIFE

For Stefano, beekeeping is not a job, but a way of life, "it gives me freedom, autonomy and allows me to interact with nature every day". Stefano and his family also have a vegetable patch as well as a wood-fired oven to cook bread, "we are completely self-sufficient which is very rewarding." Stefano grows a wide variety of vegetables and is currently experimenting with new types of crops including blueberries and Jerusalem artichokes.

THE CHALLENGES AHEAD

Mr Grazioli explains that the biggest challenges he faces are financial. He sells most of his produce to local retailers, however, he points out that he often doesn't get fair prices or clients don't pay up front.  More recently, he has started selling his produce at local markets and fairs allowing him to meet other producers, make new contacts and expand his network.

According to Stefano, the main issue is not with selling the honey, but with producing enough, "you need lots of beehives and a steady investment."

He goes on to explain that access to credit or funding is problematic and the processes can be lengthy and bureaucratic. "Apiculture is often overlooked, it is seen only as a tiny branch of agriculture,” Stefano adds, before clarifying,  " beekeeping doesn’t need a massive investment, it doesn’t require expensive equipment or machinery, there should be more incentives and subsidies for small businesses and beekeeping families, especially at the very beginning."

Stefano supports his beekeeping, particularly from May to September when the bees are producing honey, by collaborating with the Civil Protection Department in the region. He carries out home visits to safely remove bees from public buildings and private properties.

He also cooperates with the Apiculture Unit in the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale del Lazio e della Toscana. This unit carries out research on honeybee diseases and is currently working on BEENET, a national study on bee health. Stefano collaborates as Lazio's representative, gathering samples of bees and hives from apiculturists in the region.

KEY CONTRIBUTION TO FOOD SECURITY, SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT OF RURAL AREAS AND BIODIVERSITY

Stefano's business produces honey, propolis and pollen. However, Mr Grazioli underlines that " beekeeping is not merely about producing and selling honey but breeding and safeguarding bees".

By pollinating crops, bees contribute to increased food production and improve the quality of agricultural crops. "The contribution of bees is priceless", Stefano says.

For example, Stefano adds, " I work with some local farmers in Cisterna Latina.  They provide me with the land on which I can breed bees and in exchange, the bees pollinate the plantation of kiwis they grow there". This allows the farmers to produce more and better quality fruit and Stefano to produce honey: "It's a mutual exchange, a symbiosis; beekeeping and farming complement one another."

In addition, bees pollinate wild plants including forest trees so they also play a key role in safeguarding biodiversity and enhancing the agrosystem.

Stefano says the Family Farming Expo at FAO (9-27 June 2014) has been a very interesting experience.  He is fascinated with the organic production of honey and wax in Africa and supports FAO's role in promoting the International Year of Family Farming. He adds that bees could be an attractive option for small-scale and family farmers as they don't require a large investment, happily co-exist with other farming activities and have a positive impact on food production and the environment.

Stefano concludes, "I am not a good speaker but when it comes to my passion, bees, I could go on forever!" I would happily listen to him speak more about bees and their guardians, as Stefano told me, "you have to protect the beekeepers before you can protect the bees."

13/08/2014