August 4, 2009
August 4th, 2009 |

Family Business is Buzzing

MULTIMEDIA: Step inside a family bee farm.

Reaching into the one of the square wood containers lined up on the hillside of their farm, Fabrizio Gabannini pulled out a thin frame of honeycomb. He gently pressed his index finger on the hexagonal pattern and a golden glob of “miele,” or honey, oozed out. Without wasting a moment, he sucked the syrupy liquid from his digit and smiled.

“The relationship between bees and man hasn’t changed,” Fabrizio said through an interpreter. “It’s man and nature. It will never change.”

“Apicoltura,” or beekeeping, has been the Gabannini family business for four generations, making them the oldest beekeepers in the Marche region in Central Italy. Throughout the years, the family has upheld a tradition of producing quality products while still respecting the natural environment of their work. Their business has survived turbulent times, from the Nazi occupation of the past to the hive die off of the present.

Although not as common today, bee farms were customary in every rural household in the early 20th century. It was not until 1913, that Marino Gabannini decided to barter his product in addition to producing it. And so, Apicoltura Gabannini was born.

Now, the family harvests honey on 25 bee farms in and around Urbino, and tends 600 families of bees. They produce 10 different varieties of honey and sell their goods at local markets, fairs, shows and their shop.

The Gabanninis’ shop is sandwiched between their beehives and their house in the Urbino hills, just outside the town. The dark wood shelves and tables display a wide array of products–from jars of orange-flavored honey to beeswax candles and soap. All these items are produced on the Gabannini farm and in their laboratory behind their house.

On one wall of the shop hangs a framed black and white photograph of a group of four men and three young boys standing among the beehives. One of the boys is Gualtiero Gabannini when he was 4 years old. The picture dates to 1931.

Gualtiero spent his summers as a child in the hills of Urbino’s countryside. When it was hot, he slept near the hives. “Grandparents would tell their grandchildren to be careful around bees,” he said through an interpreter, “so the children were always afraid. But I never was.”

Gualtiero was in his early teens when Germans were stationed near Urbino in WWII. During this time, honey became a precious commodity and many Germans killed bee colonies to steal the goods. However, things played out differently for his family, according to Gualtiero.

“The Germans were so close to us and we began to know each other,” he said. “It became a forced good relationship.” Gualtiero remembered hiding the honey, not from the Germans, but from their Italian neighbors instead.

Despite the hard history, Gualtiero still loves everything about being a beekeeper. Even at 82, with a head of crisp white hair and a thin physique, he’ll walk among the sheets of honeycomb, puffing white smoke at the hives with a bee smoker (a device that looks like a watering can).

This is not the first time the honeybee appears in Italian history. Three honeybees adorn the crest of one of the oldest and noblest families in Italy–the Barberinis. The honeybee symbol gained more power when Maffeo Cardinal Barberini became Pope Urban VIII in 1623 and added the papal symbol to the honeybee crest.

The honeybee soon became a reminder of authority and influence in Italy that few could avoid, including Italian scientist Francesco Stelluti. Best known for his work with microscopes, Stelluti published two works on the anatomy of the honeybee to please Urban VIII. With his microscope, he was able to gaze upon the bee’s most unobserved features–including the tongue and the stinger.

Instead of worrying about the bee’s stinger, the Gabanninis focus on the natural and healing powers of bees. Gualtiero’s wife, Iti Gina, works in the house instead of on the bee farm. Between regular household chores, Gina spends her time making honey hand cream and propolis.

Propolis is an old healing remedy. Ancient Greeks used it for abscesses, Egyptians used it in mummification and Assyrians used it for tumors and sores, according to MedlinePlus online herbal dictionary. Gina began making propolis when she married Gualtiero in the mid-1950s. She dries the propolis in the sun, and then mixes the brittle leaves with alcohol. The result: a natural cure for sore throats and cuts.

`While the Gabanninis have sustained their business through the century, they are constantly facing old and new problems. Rainy days, an age-old problem for beekeepers, slow their work often and can damage their stored products. However, worldwide beehive die off is something very new that many are trying to fight.

Floriana Ferri is a secretary and technical supervisor for Provincial Consortium Apistica, an association of beekeepers in the region. “Italy is like a big garden,” Ferri said through an interpreter. “The honey we produce is some of the best in the country.”

Provincial Consortium Apistica helps train and inform beekeepers in the Marche region. Dying hives has been a recent issue that their association tries to protect against. The causes could be anything from parasites and disease to pesticides, but no one knows for certain.

“Beekeeping is a loved tradition in Italy,” Ferri said. “But it is getting harder for beekeepers. Now it is like a real job, not a hobby.”

In a family business that spans generations, a threat like hive die off could be disheartening. Last year, Apicoltura Gabannini lost 40 percent of production due to the problem, Fabrizio said.

Despite the drawbacks, Fabrizio loves his profession and hopes that his children will carry on in his footsteps. “I love being in close contact with nature,” he said. “I love the bees. They are beautiful and complicated, just like humans.”

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