There is a man in the remote mountains of Calabria in Southern Italy that locals refer to simply as “The Bee Whisperer”. Nazareno Circosta is a self-taught beekeeper, indeed, he never graduated from high school, but he has a special gift for communicating with bees that has helped him understand the tiny, mysterious creatures as well as the most eminent academics do.
In 1973, Karl von Frisch was awarded the Nobel Prize for studying and identifying the language of bees, namely, the way in which they “dance” to communicate with each other. This is astonishingly impressive to the casual honey enthusiast, but not to Nazareno. He had identified this very behavior years earlier. On my most recent study trip with the University of Gastronomic Sciences, to the Torre di Ruggiero region of Calabria, or “the toe” of the Italian boot, I was lucky enough to meet this insightful man.
Nazareno claims to be constantly learning from his bees, viewing them as friends, rather than simply members of his strange, buzzing flock. He has long observed the bees’ habits, watching as the 10,000 explorer bees leave the hive in search of new hive spaces, and then return to communicate, through dance, the available options to their fellow hive-mates. At the end of the performance, all of the other bees gather, to decide which one to follow.
But Nazareno shared another statistic with us during our visit, one that gave us a sense of newfound appreciation for him and his trade. Bees, he told us, are responsible for pollinating 90% of the globe’s plants, and moreover, for creating new species of plants thanks to their cross-pollination abilities. The human race relies so heavily on bees that we would die out within four years if bees were to be eliminated. This is alarming to consider, especially as scientific studies continue to report on shrinking bee populations around the world.
Luckily, the issue of dwindling bee populations has been getting more and more attention. In Ethiopia, where there is a strong history of beekeeping practices, Slow Food has established a number of Presidia projects, which aim to promote the high quality honey products being made there, and to develop a stronger distribution infrastructure.
So what can the average consumer do? Like with so many other products, it is important to look for honeys that are made in small batches, rather than with large-scale, industrialized methods. According to Nazareno, only 4% of the world’s population eats honey, so it is a market that is ripe for expansion. This is good news for small-scale honey producers, who through increasing sales can improve their own livelihood as well as their local economies. And the good news for consumers? High quality honey comes in so many varieties, from millefiori, to lavender, to chestnut, that we each have the joyful opportunity to taste each type of the sweet, sticky, stuff, and choose which one (or two or three) we like best!
Photo: © Alberto Peroli