The various aspects of organic beekeeping: from caring for the hives against the Varroa, to the advantages of UE marketing

La Federazione degli apicoltori Croati mi ha invitato a presentare ai loro soci una relazione sull'apicoltura biologica alla 9th International Beekeeping Fair di Gudovac, vicino alla città di Bjelovar, che si terrà il 2 e 3 febbraio prossimi; quella che segue è il discorso che ho pensato di sviluppare

Organic beekeeping in Italy began in 1992 when a group of beekeepers who already defined themselves as organic met in Rimini to try to transform their way of working with bees into a recognized method. After two days of tiring discussions (I was there) there came out a list of specifications whose rules were accepted by the Organic Control Bodies and it was then possible to use the word "from organic farming."

The magical year was 1999 when the European Union, at the apex of the food scandals (BSE, dioxin chickens, etc.) finally issued Regulation 1804 that filled the gap in the lack of regulations for organic products derived from animals.

Italy was straight away the most important for it’s quantity of certified farms and hives and the beekeeping associations asked the Agricultural Ministry to issue a circular to alleviate the difficulties that conventional beekeepers had in converting their hives to organic. For example: changing all the wax of the nest and of the supers and the period in which the conversion occurred.

There were also introduced maximum limits for synthetic miticide residue that the combs of certificated hives could hold: the sum total residues of the 4 active ingredients used to care for the bee colonies (coumaphos, fluvalinate, amitraz and Cymiazole) could be up to 0.30 mg / kg (300 µg / kg), but with the following limitations: Coumaphos, maximum 0.20 mg / kg (200 µg / kg) and Fluvalinate: 0.10 mg / kg (100 µg / kg); residues Chlorfenvinphos, which until then had never been used, so it should have been (and should be) absent, therefore 0.010 mg / kg (10 µg/kg).

Still today managing the wax (the purchase of wax for use in the hives, processing wax caps, the purchase of artificial nucleus, etc.) is one of the highest risks and problems for organic beekeepers, however, these limits are still in place.

But how do these standards affect the work of the beekeepers?

It must be said that those who use the method of organic agriculture and, therefore, comply with the regulations 834/2007 and 889/2008, must submit their own farm to an inspection that in Italy is run by a private Control Body chosen by the farm owner himself but which in turn is controlled by the Ministry of Agriculture. The Control Body ensures that the farm complies with the rules written by law.

Taking a deeper look at the rules that limit the work of the beekeeper most are those that relate to the position of the apiaries (ie: the environment where the bees live) and the use of medicines to combat bee diseases. That's the real key point with organic beekeeping, that on the one hand must try to minimize the damage that man is causing to the environment and the other hand must provide the consumer with food free of harmful residues.

However, the main way that the inspector uses to verify that the beekeeper is not being dishonest, is to analyze the wax of the nest, that most detects the presence of residues of miticide used for combating varroa. In addition, the inspector visits the apiaries, or at least part of them, to see that the places of production are always suitable for organic beekeeping and ends by checking every bureaucratic document (particularly the log books).

Let us now take a brief look into the market of organic products in order to understand what is the current situation and try to venture a prediction about the future.

The latest statistical data available to us tells us that the certified organic land in the world is growing:




And despite that organic farming was born in Europe, there is still more development in this area:

















The market for organic products, note the United States is the largest purchaser of organic, followed by Germany:



In this chart we see the development of the organic market that has taken place in European countries, and how only in the UK there was a sharp decrease, which is now easing:



And in this chart we see how the market has evolved over the last two years surveyed:


If we take into account the pro-capita consumption, things change a little bit, this indicates how the population is virtuous:




Italy is the largest producer of organic honey and has about 100,000 hives surveyed that means about 10% of Italian hives are certified:

With regard to consumption it is still rising, this is the situation in Italy:




And as for honey, growth is slow but steady:


Problems and prospects in the organic market

The major weaknesses in this sector are the most upstream stages of the supply chain

In fact, even today the decision to stay in organic by producers is linked more to UE aid and not because of a favorable selling price.

It is quite evident the imbalance between the areas where they grow organic (economically depressed areas) and where organic is consumed (the economically rich areas).

The positive aspects come from the downstream stages of the supply chain.

In fact, organic is still growing despite the international crisis and growing more than other sectors of quality agri-food industry such as PDO and PGI.

Producer prices are fairly stable while consumer prices are down thanks to an improved distribution. In short, everything looks good for the future in the organic sector.

The organization of my farm

We come now to the organization of my farm, which is common to many other organic farms (and conventional) in Italy.

The cornerstone of my breeding is always to try to have very strong families approaching the flowering season, but not too strong to reduce the risk of swarming and the great amount of work needed to do with colonies that want to swarm.

At the end of the winter and in early spring, I make the stocks of honey and the brood balanced among all the hives.

It is important to balance the stocks of the hives when coming out of the winter because those that have a low stock need to be fed, while those with too much stock are likely to swarm when the queen has no more free cells to lay eggs. For nutrition during the winter I prefer to use candy that does not stimulate the hives; it is necessary to buy only organic products and remember to update the register every time. In organic beekeeping it is forbidden to use feed to stimulate families to grow faster.

In April we try to stop swarming by taking away brood and bees and with these we produce nucleus. I also divide the colonies that are too strong that want to swarm, that have many royal cells when the blossom of the acacia is still too far away in time.

Sometimes, in order to balance families, I change, within the same apiary, weak colonies with strong colonies, in this way the weak colonies strengthen with the field bees of stronger colonies. My aim is to have colonies with about 7 brood combs when the acacia begins to blossom; it is also important to have the colonies in progression. When flowering has begun, I destroy the queen cells in families who want to swarm, this work must be performed at least every 8 days.

At the end of April I begin the production of the queen bees (only for my farm) to replace those no longer efficient and also after working all spring, some families remain orphans.

At the end of each production I take off the supers and blow away the bees with a motor blower, at the same time I take away a brood frame and bees for the formation of artificial swarms. In June I begin also to evaluate the rate of infestation of the apiaries with the method I learned by reading The American Bee Journal. All new hives must be written in the register which is updated monthly.

At the end of production it is also evident all the colonies that are not productive and in these I replace the queens.

In my farm we move the hives for the production of acacia, chestnut, eucalyptus and sunflower honey.

In mid-summer, around the end of July, before the drought is too severe, all my commitment is in the fight against varroa. In organic farming we only have a few active molecules: oxalic acid, thymol and formic acid, but now thymol in some parts of Italy no longer works well (it is below 70% effective, and also kills many bees) and formic acid is not allowed by Italian law. So the only really still active molecule (around 90%  efficient) is oxalic acid. But it only works if there is not a brood in the hive, and therefore in the summer season I can only do 2 things: block the queen in the special cages for 21/24 days and, on her release, do a treatment with oxalic acid; or remove the entire brood and do a treatment after 2 days, still with oxalic acid.

In the second case we need to feed the bees with organic sugar syrup or honey for about two weeks, but in compensation we produce many artificial necleus. This is also the time to replace the invalid queens or those who have worked for many years.

When the treatments of the bees are finished, we don’t go to the apiary very much until November when the colonies are usually in natural brood block and then we run another treatment with oxalic acid.


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