Bees in Italy

This blog details a day I spent exploring an apiary and eating fresh produce on an island less than forty minutes ferry ride from Venice, Italy.

A short ferry ride away from the millions of tourists that flock to Venice sits Sant’ Erasmo, an island just 3.26 square kilometers in size. The island is known as ‘The Garden of Venice’. Locals grow exceptional produce on the island including artichoke, wine and honey.

*Update: As of January 2019 Miele del Doge have their website up and running. Click here to visit their site. We found using a mobile to view the site gives us an option to switch to an English mode.*

Here on Sant’ Erasmo Mara and her son Marco run Miele del Doge, which translates into the Duke’s Honey. Miele del Doge is a family run apiary that is intentionally kept small. The focus is on quality over quantity. I was lucky enough to be given a tour of Mara and Marco’s apiaries and discussed their beekeeping methods. Unfortunately we had organised the tour for a rainy spring day. We weren’t able to open and inspect the hives but that didn’t stop us getting muddy and heading out into the apiaries to have a look at the hives, watch the occasional bee fly out and discuss all things bee related. Liliana, Marco’s wife provided fantastic translation services.

The apiary

One of Miele del Doge’s apiaries.

The team chooses to limit the number of hives they maintain so they can focus on developing good queen genetics. Their ethics are to not overwork the bees they manage. They don’t treat their colonies with chemicals – to ensure the honey they produce is the highest quality possible. They don’t over harvest honey – leaving the bees enough honey for them to survive the winter and they use cloth gloves when handling the bees instead of the standard leather gloves. They risk stings penetrating the cloth gloves in order to give themselves a greater sensitivity when working their hives. Wearing cloth gloves also reduces the chances of accidentally crushing their bees. While not a popular trend at the moment there are other beekeepers using and advocating for the switch to thinner gloves for the sake of improved beekeeping husbandry. Hilary Kearney who writes the blog Beekeeping Like a Girl has written an entire article on beekeeping wearing nitrile gloves. Nitrile is a synthetic rubber similar to latex but produces fewer allergic reactions in people than latex. If you are interested in switching from leather gloves to gloves with greater sensitivity abilities you should definitely read Hilary’s blog “What’s the deal with nitrile beekeeping gloves?”Mara and Marco’s cloth gloves work on the same principles as nitrile gloves but allows them to be reused for a longer time.

Running their apiary on an island provides Mara and Marco with a range of pros and cons. Due to its small population and almost non-existent tourist numbers the island has remained significantly free of pollutants and contamination. The salty sandbanks (called barenes) are home to the barena plant, something that is not common to other apiary sites. Barena flowers produce a dark coloured honey that crystalizes quickly. It has a slightly bitter aftertaste but not as bitter as chestnut honey. Sant’ Erasmo is also home to a native variety of artichoke. The artichokes are considered a delicacy and sold to high-end restaurants around Italy. Mara and Marco’s bees help to pollinate the artichokes and use the nectar from the plants to create unique flavours of honey.

Living on a remote island Mara and Marco’s bees rarely, if at all come, across other bees. Mara and Marco assess that the bees on Sant’ Erasmo are only able to fly to the neighbouring islands of Lido, Murano, Burano and possibly Torcello e Punta Sabbioni. This limits the genetics of the bees but also allows them to try new methods of beekeeping and gauge the effectiveness with minimal interference/contamination from external bees. One such experiment they are currently trialling and plan to run over the next three years is a non-chemical treatment to reduce or eliminate varroa mites from their hives. The test involves placing a queen excluder horizontally across frames one and two closest to the hive entrance. This forces the queen to initially lay eggs in the first brood frame. Any mites already on the bees will hopefully lay their eggs in the brood cells of the first frame. The queen is then moved into the main brood area to continue laying eggs. After three weeks the first eggs hatch and the frame is disposed of. The aim is to dispose of as many mites as possible to prevent them from gaining access to the entire brood and overrunning the colony. The trial is still in its infancy and it is too early to tell how effective it is.

The downside to being a remote island is limited the food sources available. In July and August there is almost no food for the bees to forage on. Mara and Marco have to factor this in to how much honey they harvest during the season to minimise the amount of supplementary feeding they need to do. They are also attempting to plant flowers that bloom during these months of dearth to combat the lack of food.

A six-frame polystyrene hive next to a ten-frame wooden hive.

A second problem they face is humidity. Being a humid climate means the hives constantly have higher amounts of moisture in them than Mara and Marco would like. With their apiary so close to the sea the moisture that does find its way inside the hives is quite salty. Due to salt’s antiseptic properties Mara and Marco believe the salt in the moisture inside the hives is not all problematic. The salty moisture helps to maintain a balance of bacteria and mould.  Mara and Marco are testing polystyrene hives to see whether they are more effective than wooden hives, especially in dealing with the humid weather. Polystyrene hives don’t absorb moisture like wood does so mould is less likely to occur. Polystyrene hives are made from dense foam and usually have a higher thermal rating than wood. This gives the added advantage of keeping the hives warmer in winter (which hopefully translates into greater colony survival rates and a smaller requirement of food stores to survive the winter) and cooler in summer. In Australia I have found that you need cover your polystyrene hives with a metal or wooden lid to stop the cockatoos tearing chunks out of the polystyrene roof of your hives!

Fresh produce food tastings

Left to right: Barena honey from 2017; Four day old Acacia honey; Barena honey from 2016.

Back in Mara’s kitchen I sampled two barena honeys. One was one year old and the second was two years old. Both were very strong in flavour and had a slightly bitter aftertaste. I also sampled an acacia honey that had been harvested just four days earlier. The acacia honey had a much thinner consistency compared to other honeys I have tried and had a much more subtle flavour than the barena honey.

Mara runs food tastings showcasing Miele del Doge’s honey and local fresh produce. As part of my tour I sat down to lunch with the family. Mara started the meal with a twist on the old favourite ‘cheese and crackers’. We had fresh, locally grown artichoke on savoury crackers drizzled with acacia honey. Having not eaten artichoke raw before it was a surprising delight. Mara also prepared savoury crackers with walnuts, Pecorino cheese (Italian sheep cheese from Tuscany) and a drizzle of acacia honey. The sweetness of the honey complimented the flavour of the cheese and walnuts perfectly.

Main course was skewered pepper prawns with lime, accompanied by honey vinaigrette and wild asparagus mini quiche served with roast artichoke and fresh artichoke salad. The skewered pepper prawns were soft and flavoursome. The fresh artichoke salad was made using raw artichoke from Sant’ Erasmo, oil, salt and honey. Simple and delicious. As someone who isn’t a fan of quiche I ate more than my fair share of the quiches, which says volumes about how good they were!

A lovely fresh lunch prepared by Mara as part of Miele del Doge’s local produce food tastings.

For dessert Mara served homemade biscuits with a healthier hazelnut alternative to the well-known Nutella. The homemade spread contained 65% acacia honey and 35% hazelnut paste, nothing else. The hazelnuts were sourced from Piemonte and are arguably the best in Italy. The team currently sends the ingredients to an external manufacturer who combines the spread for them. They are in the process of obtaining accreditation so they can manufacture the spread in-house. The nut spread had an intense nut flavour that was quite sweet. The unsweetened, homemade plain biscuit Mara served with the spread helped to cut through the sweetness. I imagine if you had grown up eating the spread it would be quite enjoyable however my exposure to Nutella as a child made it hard for me to initially fall in love with their healthier, homemade version. It was a taste I could easily get used to though, if I wanted to substitute Nutella from my diet for a healthier alternative. The second and final dessert on the menu was homemade panna cotta. I loved the cheese and crackers and very much enjoyed the prawns and quiche but the highlight of the meal for me was the panna cotta. It bounced when tapped with a spoon, held together when I sliced through it and had a sweetness I thought was perfect.

Miele del Doge
The Miele del Doge team.

Visiting Mara and Marco was an amazing experience. Their hospitality was second to none and the visit would not have been possible without Liliana’s expert translation services. They went above and beyond to make sure I had a wonderful time not just on Sant’ Erasmo but also during my time exploring Venice. If you have a passion for bees or eating fresh, local produce and are planning on heading to Venice I would definitely recommend getting in contact with the team at Miele del Doge to organise a bee tour or food tasting experience.

A brief history of Sant’ Erasmo

Sant’ Erasmo is an island northeast of Venice and north of Lido in the Venetian Lagoon. It’s agricultural uses date back to the Middle Ages, before Cavallino’s seashore emerged and Sant’ Erasmo separated from the mainland and became an island. The aristocracy of the government and a monastery were the first two groups to produce crops on Sant’ Erasmo. The island was a port linked to Murano, another Venetian island back in the eighth century. From the sixteenth century forts were built on the island to defend the Republic of Venice. Between 1811 and 1814 (after overthrowing the Republic of Venice) the French built a stronghold on the island. After Napoleon’s defeat, the Austrian Archduke Maximilian of Austria-Este built a tower on the island commencing in 1843. He later sought refuge on the island during a revolt. Up to thirteen canons could be housed on the upper level of the fort. The fort was still used by the Italian army as late as world war one. German troops occupied Sant’ Erasmo in April 1943 during world war two. In 1945 in an attempt to destroy the island the German troops bombed it as they left. The island was badly damaged and until the 1990s it was used as a refuge for the homeless and a warehouse before it was completely abandoned. In 2004 a recovery program was established. Sant’ Erasmo is once again used for agriculture and cultural events including an art gallery are also located there.

Contact the Miele del Doge team

Meile del Doge can be contacted via their website or find them on Facebook or Google maps. We found using a mobile to view the site gives us an option to switch to an English mode.

Note: I travelled at my own expense to Miele del Doge. I received no benefits for writing this article.

Thanks for reading, enjoy your journey!

8 Frame Honey

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