Crisp apples in autumn, golden waves of rape in spring. Every year nature gives us the gifts of fertile fields and trees full of fruit. Without bees this would not be possible. As pollinators, they are irreplaceable for the environment, for nature and thus also for humans. Next to the Biotta production plant on Lake Constance, five bee colonies are busy doing their vital work.
It’s unusually quiet; no buzzing can be heard. The roof of the Biotta bee hotel is covered in a blanket of snow. The busy bees are still on their winter break. From October to March, the five bee colonies spend the winter with “their” beekeeper Ernst Kreis in Ermatingen (TG). Depending on the weather and the progress of nature in the spring, the retired carpenter and amateur beekeeper brings the insects back to the bee hotel either in early or mid-April. Then the bees can set off on their forays again to collect nectar and pollen. The wooden bee house has stood on a meadow next to Biotta’s juice plant since 2016. Ernst Kreis built and installed it himself. The project was initiated by a relative of Kreis who used to work for Biotta. The company funds various bee projects throughout Switzerland, so it was only natural to want to maintain its own bee colonies as well. “Our founding father, Dr. Hugo Brandenberger, was well aware of the importance of biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. With the Biotta bee hotel, we want to set a good example for others,” says managing director Clemens Rüttimann. The bee hotel is only one small part of Biotta’s overall environmental commitment. With its consistent focus on organic products, the company supports organic agriculture throughout the region, and it is currently building a woodchip heating system to enable CO2-neutral production by 2020.
Boom in beekeeping
The Biotta bees are looked after by Ernst Kreis and his eldest son. The 66-year-old has had a passion for beekeeping since the days of his youth. “I got my first bees while apprenticing as a carpenter,” he says. Back in those days, beekeepers had to teach themselves. Through textbooks and trade journals, Kreis acquired all the knowledge that he now imparts to others as a “godfather” for younger beekeepers. Since then, apiaries have become highly professionalised. Anyone interested today in pursuing the trade in German-speaking Switzerland can attend a two-year course offered by the local beekeepers’ associations under the patronage of the umbrella organisation “BienenSchweiz”. The organisation develops and distributes practical teaching materials and trains consultants who teach young beekeepers how to work with bees in a so-called teaching apiary. There are similar institutions in the French- and Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland.
Beekeeping as a hobby is booming. Films like “More than honey” in particular have conveyed the fatal consequences of the global bee colony collapse and have raised public awareness of the great importance of insects. Ernst Kreis welcomes this development: “Our bees could not survive without beekeepers.” The culprit is the Varroa mite, which was discovered for the first time in Switzerland in the mid-1980s. Introduced from Asia, the mites live as parasites on the bees. Without regular acid treatment by the beekeepers to keep the mites at bay, the bees would die within one to three years. This makes the work of the 19,000 beekeepers in Switzerland all the more vital. Most of them keep bees for the pure joy of it. Or out of the desire to protect the environment, like Ernst Kreis: “Nature and ecology have always been important to me.” That’s why this four-time grandfather doesn’t travel by air and drives his car as little as possible.
Bees for ideal pollination
When the five bee colonies are staying at the Biotta bee hotel, Ernst Kreis looks in on them two to three times a week. He checks, for example, whether a new queen is developing from one of the larvae. If Kreis discovers the larva in time, he removes it and uses it to establish a new colony. There can only be one queen per colony. She can live for up to five years. Her subjects have a lifespan of five weeks to nine months, depending on whether they are summer or winter bees. A bee colony numbers 40,000 to 60,000 insects at its peak. This large quantity of bees makes a difference for the surrounding fields, according to Ernst Kreis. Since honey bees – in contrast to wild bees and bumble bees – live together as a colony, they have a greater influence on the fertilisation of their surroundings. They are also the only fertilising insect with flower constancy, meaning that they collect pollen from only one plant species at a time. In this way they avoid pollinating the wrong plants, ensuring a rich harvest for the farmers in prime quality. In addition to fields and orchards, the Biotta bees also have the choice of many gardens and parks in the area. This makes the location of the bee hotel next to the Biotta plant ideal, says Kreis. The village stream also flows nearby. This water source is particularly important in springtime, when the bees need quite a lot of water to raise their brood.
A give and take
Twice a year, Ernst Kreis collects the Biotta bees’ honey: spring honey in the second half of May, summer honey between mid-July and early August. The five colonies each produce an average of about 12 kilograms of honey per year. After the summer harvest the feeding begins. Kreis prepares a feast of sugar syrup for the bees, made up of dextrose, fructose and sucrose. This replaces the honey harvested from the bees, which they would have used as winter fodder. Even after 25 years of intense beekeeping activity, Ernst Kreis is still inspired every day by the industrious insects. “I find it fascinating to observe and support the development of bees throughout the year.” Nature is surely grateful to him, because the gardens and meadows around the Biotta plant would not bloom so magnificently without his bees.