Making a beeline for Unterlüss

Heather honey is a delicacy much in demand

FOJANA, the German acronym for “forestry”, “hunting” and “nature conservation,” is part of the program at the Rheinmetall test site in Unterlüss. The aim here is to sustainably manage the areas of heath and forest. This not only facilitates an otherwise rarely encountered diversity of flora and fauna, but also means that, every year in August, around thirty beekeepers with around 400 hives are allowed to “invade” the site when the heather is flowering.

Almost out of tradition, a staunch throng of beekeepers now comes to the area every late summer to harvest the much-prized, slightly creamy and highly aromatic heather honey. They are given passes for this, as the site is otherwise closed to the public. “The heath is a man-made cultural landscape,” explains FOJANA boss Rüdiger Quast, who, aided by his colleague Hermann Mielich and five foresters, manages the approximately 50 square kilometres of land in the Lüneburg Heath and supervises it as a game warden. “Although it is an example of how nature has evolved in northern Germany since the Ice Age, without human intervention bushes and trees would become established within a few years and the area would become wooded. To prevent this, since trees would hamper military training, parts of the area are routinely burned to stop tree species from growing. This is the only way that the heath can regenerate and develop undisturbed. In the following year, it flowers again in its familiar color. As additional helpers, only a race of moorland sheep (the “Heidschnucke”) is used to keep young tree shoots short. Along with widespread tree-felling in the 19th century – wood was very much in demand as a building material and heating fuel – large-scale sheep farming contributed considerably at the time to the historical preservation of the areas of heathland.

The containment of the advancing birch and pine forests directly benefits insects and ultimately attracts the beekeepers from the surrounding villages whose bees produce the valuable heather honey. 

The bee whisperer

“If we’re going to be stung, then by horseflies. I’ve already had a word with my bees,” quips experienced beekeeper Klaus Ahrens, as he drives to no more than 2 meters from his hives. He also needs this harmonious relationship, because this third-generation beekeeper works without any protective clothing and does without gloves when handling the honeycomb frames teeming with bees. But he proves to be right, and after a few minutes even the horseflies lose interest in the new visitors to the heath. The only item of equipment to keep the bees at bay is the smoker. Containing glowing wood shavings, it produces smoke which the bees interpret as a fire alarm. In this stressful situation, they focus their attentions solely on their brood and food reserves and not on the person currently working at the hive. Of course, it is not uncommon for Ahrens to get stung, but in around 80 per cent of these cases, he sees himself as the main culprit. However, after more than 35 years as a beekeeper, he is now immune to bee stings. 

Ahrens is vice president of the German Association of Professional and Commercial Beekeepers, comes from the neighboring village of Müden and lives from beekeeping alone thanks to his approximately 400 colonies. Keeping bees for over a hundred years, his family is now in its fourth generation, as his son is now joining the family business, much to his father’s delight. 

PESTS SUCH AS THE VARROA MITE AND THE SPREAD OF FARMING PUT BEES IN DANGER

A line of animal husbandry that hasn’t always had it easy. Firstly, pests such as the Varroa mite and the widespread use of pesticides have in some areas wiped out 50 percent of the world’s population over the last few decades. In addition, beekeepers have had to retreat before the advance of farming, as arable crops, with the exception of rape, are practically worthless for bees. This makes it all the more important for Ahrens and his colleagues to have the opportunity to bring their bee colonies to such almost unspoiled spots as the military training ground. 

Ahrens waits eagerly for the flowering of the heather, for he has run out of jars of heather honey from the last harvests, a fact that many of his customers take almost personally. To harvest the heather honey effectively, he has had to invest heavily in special machines, because the coveted honey is not as easy to process as other traditional monofloral honeys. But this is what gives it its special character and unique flavour, and also what makes it twice as expensive. 

His work as a beekeeper consists mainly of assisting the bees in their work and creating the necessary conditions for successful honey production. Ahrens: “I think the bees know more than we do.” For this he relocates his hives two to three times a year, sometimes to places in the Altmark many kilometers away. With his bees, Ahrens thus follows the flowering of rape, acacia, lime, cornflower, sunflower, buckwheat and heather, interspersed with the collection period for forest honey. 

whether a larva becomes a queen or a worker is decided only by the food and care of the worker bees

Ahrens checks all his colonies weekly for signs of swarming. In addition, he also has to breed bees himself or even buy them in to replenish his colonies, because only a robust colony achieves the necessary yield and a summer bee has a life span of only six weeks. Depending on the time of year, he therefore occasionally has to feed them as well and has sometimes had to merge six or seven dwindling colonies to create a new one.

The queen bee lays a multitude of eggs and, even in the event of the queen dying, each of her eggs could become a new queen. This is dictated solely by the food that the larvae are given and the assistance provided by the worker bees in their devoted service to the queen. The hierarchy and functional organization within the hive are clearly and strictly defined. After hibernation, the bees first leave the hive at a temperature of 14 degrees Celsius, which is usually in April. The bee season ends in October. 

 

Also very popular with consumers is cut-comb honey, a honey with a high proportion of heather nectar. Even for Ahrens, it is an art to produce this honey, which is cut into slices and served on the bread rolls of breakfast buffets in quality hotels. Ahrens achieves prices of 50 euros per kilogram. To obtain cut-comb honey, the beekeeper inserts an empty frame into the hive. The bees then produce the honeycombs themselves and also seal the delicious honey under a layer of wax. 

Changing the way we live

A colony produces around 150 kilograms of honey and collects around 80 kilograms of pollen in a single year. The colony needs more than half of the honey and almost all of the pollen for its own survival. This shows how fragile the ecological balance in the bee world is. But Ahrens can already see changes in attitudes and awareness in the population and in government. This covers everything from home-built bee hotels and the bee-friendly stacking of deadwood to publicly funded schemes and the offer of “bee electricity.” For this, equivalent to a family’s average annual power consumption, the electricity provider creates around 500 square meters of bee areas. Ahrens: “We’ve got to learn to change the way we live.”