Bee-yard in the Binntal: A Newly-launched Landschaftspark Project

A year ago, Peter Clausen kindly spoke with me about his Gemeinschaftsgarten project, the Ernen village community garden that I covered in this blog (click here to read the blog of last year). This July, he invited me to see the first stages of the bee-yard (apiary) that he, members of the community, and recruits from the Swiss Army had erected some 10 minutes up into the Binntal. This was to be my first face-to-face encounter with bees and their hives, so I had to dress accordingly: long trousers and good socks at the very least. Peter also had a second hooded beekeeper’s jacket for me to wear once we started checking the hives.

Every beekeeper will be stung at some point; it just goes with the territory. But an ounce of prevention never hurt. So in the old bee-house close to Peter’s new hives, he picked up a lantern-like “smoker,” ignited the loose material inside it, and whooshed a little smoke over the hive we would look into first. “The bees react wisely to smoke,” Peter explained, “they dig into the honey comb and start filling their bellies. See, if the woods around them really are burning, they know they’ll need all the energy they can get, so they eat as much as they can.” Point taken: when he lifted the lid and extracted the first of several vertical frames, many of the colony were pulsing away at a honey cell, their back sides up in the air.

But it was the bees’ remarkable density that impressed me most: hundreds and hundreds of bees clambering over one another for a place in the one-by-two foot frame, then for no obvious reason, turning away to head off in another direction. Several octagons of comb were filled with royal jelly, that nectar reserved for the hive’s single queen. Always larger than the other bees, the queen alone is inseminated by several drones, and lays some 2,000 eggs daily. As such, she singularly “births” all her hive’s next generations. Passing through the others, she hardly seemed to attract much attention, they all moved about together in what looked like a bubbling glut of small bodies and wings.

In select other areas on the frame, the carapace of a new bee could be seen poking out of its octagonal “womb.” Other wholes section was filled with the gooey, amber-colored honey that Peter thought would be ripe enough for harvest at the end of July. When we closed that hive to go to another, I had to remind myself, too, that all of the activity we’d seen is done in the dark; once that upper cover is set over the frames, it’s pitch black for the bees inside. No matter: by some miracle, they all know their roles, the job they have to do.

In contrast to the frenzy on the frames we was inspecting, Peter stayed remarkably calm. It pays, of course, to stay calm around bees, but the tending of − and organization around − the new apiary has, he said, been a real boon: Just off the road up the Binntal, this is a purposeful enterprise, and a nature conservancy project of the first order. It’s no wonder that the Landschaftpark Binntal is keen to promote it among visitors of all ages. Contributing to the preservation of both nature and a local cultural tradition, the new project has the organization’s vote of confidence. And because it fosters better understanding of the bee’s role in the greater eco-system, and engages the community and visitors in the park, educational programming is in the planning.

What’s more, in addition to tracking and tending to honey bees, the project also aims to preserve the valley’s smaller-sized wild bees. Their preferred habitats are piles of wood debris and irregularly stacked logs, whose tiniest holes they seek out for shelter. So with the help of some Swiss Army recruits who’d been assigned an eco-friendly task, several such habitats were assembled on the bee-yard late last year. The land around the old bee-house was also cleared and leveled, and planted with flowering shrubs, berry bushes, various saplings, and six new roses, to attract more insect life.

Notably, because this is currently an awareness-raising project more than anything else, the production of the bee-yard’s hives – the honey bees’ honey, beeswax, pollen, and the royal jelly reserved for the queen – are not expected to become a commercial venture anytime soon. With only 15 hives, and some 40,000 bees, this apiary’s controlled honey production is still modest. What’s more, there are already professional beekeepers farther up the valley whose merchandising efforts are vital to their incomes. Yet one of the highlights of my visit to the new bee-yard, I admit, was tasting some of the fresh new honey these little creatures had produced. With the end of the chisel he’d used to open a hive, Peter pulled up a teaspoonful, and ask me to try it. No surprise there: It was wildflowers, mountain air and sunshine all in one.

Ernen, Monday, 17 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet