I was in the Alps yesterday, high up in a valley in the Piedmontese province of Cuneo. As always, I found the mountains a source of wonder, both great and small: blue skies of an intensity rarely found elsewhere; sudden weather changes that can make seemingly peaceful clouds turn threatening in just a few minutes; and, looking down, almost under soles of my hiking shoes, the incredible variation of a grassy carpet dotted here and there with the bright pink of rhododendrons, the paler shades of wild thyme, the purple of campanulas and mountain tea, the yellow of buttercups…
Every time I find myself looking down at this incredible—and entirely natural—wealth of colors and scents, I think about how all the grasses and herbs, the thousand species with tender leaves and delicate flowers, are the lowest common denominator of high-altitude meals. The meals of the human gatherer, who knows that nettles are good for frittatas, risottos and teas and that wild thyme will give an unmistakable aroma to roasts or goat cheese. But also the meals of the grazing cows, who, as Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, do not see a new pasture as an nondescript sea of green, nor a vague entity called grass, but specific “objects,” like a tuft of white clover or a spray of bluish fescue. “These two entities are as different in [the cow’s] mind as vanilla ice cream is from cauliflower, two dishes you would never conflate just because they both happen to be white,” writes Pollan. And, of course, taking advantage of the same “buffet” are all the bees and pollinating insects who gladden our hearts with their buzzing and distract us with their flights from flower to flower.
Watching them as they go about, intent on choosing their food sources, I know that all this wealth of fragrances and flavors will be reflected in the honey, milk, butter and cheese made up here in these meadows. And I realize that a simple walk in the mountains is able to complete much of what we learn by reading books and articles on animal welfare, on the health of the bees, because here you can see things with your own eyes. Up in the mountains there are no chemicals and no pollution. The environment is “difficult” because you have to protect yourself from the cold (even in the summer) and because we must get used to breathing a different kind of air. But once the body has acclimatized, it feels as though it is becoming stronger. Some time ago, a nomadic beekeeping friend of mine who works in the mountains above Cuneo explained to me that his bees can withstand temperature swings and the return of the cold weather. In his honey production, he follows a principle of putting quality before quantity.
And so we return to wondering about the actual benefits, over the long term, of hyperproductivity: The bees themselves seem to tell us that the reverse is true, that hyperproductivity is not good. No wonder that in recent years, one of the main causes of the collapse of bee colonies has been shown to be industrial agriculture, which makes wide use of chemicals and prioritizes monocultures at the expense of biodiversity. In corn and soy monocultures, bees cannot find food, cannot produce honey, cannot pollinate. And they die. In contrast, even without going up into the mountains, if you have a farm that diversifies its crops and uses organic production methods, the bees will work “at full capacity.” This does not mean that they produce much more, but simply that they work well, as they can establish a truly beneficial relationship with the environment. After all, the relationship bees have with their local area is based on total merging and symbiosis. An environment rich in flowers like an Alpine meadow or an organic, diversified farm mean healthy colonies, pollination and a guarantee of a further abundance of plants; a monoculture means the opposite.
And if we want to fill our plates with a diversity of foods—cherries, tomatoes, pears, apples, carrots, radishes—we have to ensure that the bees’ “buffet” survives. The bees prosper where there is biodiversity, and biodiversity is guaranteed by the pollination carried out by bees. A properly functioning hive is not just a jar of honey, some beeswax and some propolis. In many ways it is also an apple, a tomato, a strawberry or a field of wildflowers. This is what pollination guarantees us.
And now the mountain “buffet” acquires a different meaning: it is a nettle risotto, a honey or a cheese with a special flavor and a profound sense of place, and it is also our guarantee that we can enjoy being here next summer, and the one after that.
What do bees have to do with cheese? Come and find out! Two events at Cheese will illuminate the connections between dairies and apiaries. On Sunday September 22 at 4.30 pm, a Milk Workshop will be held on the subject, organized in collaboration with UNAAPI and EBC. Then at 9.30 pm there will be a performance of the show La Solitudine dell’Ape (“the solitude of the bee”), with storytelling and songs, by Andrea Pierdicca and Yo Yo Mundi. Plus, every day during Cheese, a Honey Bar will be set up in the courtyard of the Biodiversity House, where visitors can come and discover the world of honeys.
Find out more:
Greenpeace has recently published an interesting report, entitled Bees in Decline, downloadable here: http://www.greenpeace.org/switzerland/Global/international/publications/agriculture/2013/BeesInDecline.pdf. This statistic-packed study sums up the reasons for the collapse of bee colonies and offers some interesting pointers about what we can do.
Greenpeace has also launched a “Save the bees” campaign, which has already gathered over 250,000 signatures and which can be shared on social media: http://sos-bees.org/
You can also check out the website of the European Beekeeping Coordination (www.bee-life.eu) and the Italian National Union of Beekeeping Associations (http://www.mieliditalia.it/index.php/en-fr-es-de/english).