Bees mean life

Every year nature gives us the gift of trees full of fruit. Bees as pollinators are irreplaceable for the environment and thus also for humans. Next to the Biotta production plant on Lake Constance, five bee colonies are busy doing their vital work.

The air is alive with buzzing and whirring. As the first rays of the sun ap­pear over the hori­zon and set the Biotta Bee Ho­tel aglow, the bees are al­ready set­ting off on their for­ays to col­lect nec­tar and pollen. The wooden bee house has stood on a meadow next to Biot­ta’s juice plant since 2016. The re­tired car­pen­ter and am­a­teur bee­keeper Ernst Kreis built and in­stalled it him­self. He brings his bees to the Bee Ho­tel for the sum­mer months, from April to Oc­to­ber, and back to his api­ary in Er­matin­gen TG for the win­ter. 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 opened its own wood­chip heat­ing sys­tem in 2019 to power pro­duc­tion processes and heat its build­ings us­ing green en­ergy from re­new­able raw ma­te­ri­als.

Bees in their housing. In the summer months, up to 60,000 bees populate the Biotta Bee Hotel.

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 cru­cial. 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.