November 29, 2023
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A Way of Life with Bees

How a century-old apiary survived the Nazis, climate change and the mysterious worldwide beehive die-off

By Nicole Ely

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, honey, oozed out. He sucked the syrupy liquid from his finger and smiled.

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

Apicoltura, or beekeeping, has been the Gabannini family business for four generations, making Apicoltura Gabannini the the oldest beekeeping operation in the Marche region of central Italy. Over 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 Nazi occupation to the current hive die-off.

Although not as common today, bee farms were customary in every rural household in this region in the early 20th century. It was not until 1913 that Marino Gabannini decided to barter his product. That’s when Apicoltura Gabannini was born.

Now, the family harvests honey on 25 bee farms in and around Urbino, a town of 15,000, and tends 600 families of bees. Family members produce 10 different varieties of honey, and sell their goods at local markets, fairs, shows, and their own shop.

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

On one wall of the shop hangs a framed black and white photograph of four men and three young boys among the beehives. One of those boys is Gualtiero Gabannini at age four. The picture was taken in 1931.

As a child, Gualtiero Gabannini spent his summers in the Urbino hills. When it was hot, he slept near the hives.

“Grandparents would tell their grandchildren to be careful around bees, so the children were always afraid,” he said. “But I never was.”

He was in his early teens during World War II, when German soldiers were stationed near Urbino. During this time, honey was a precious commodity, and many Germans killed bee colonies to steal the goods. However, things played out differently for his family, Gabannini said.

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

Despite the tough history, Gabannini 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).

Honeybees have a long history in Italy. Three honeybees adorn the crest of one of the oldest and noblest families in Italy, the Barberinis. The honeybee symbol rose even further in status 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 that few could avoid. Scientist Francesco Stelluti, best known for his work with microscopes, published two works on the anatomy of the honeybee, to please Urban VIII. With his microscope, he was able to gaze upon the bees’ most unobserved features, including the tongue and the stinger.

Instead of worrying about the bee stingers, the Gabanninis focus on bees’ natural and healing powers. Gualtiero Gabannini’s wife, Iti Gina, makes honey hand cream and propolis, an old healing remedy.

The ancient Greeks used propolis to treat abscesses; Egyptians used it in mummification, and Assyrians used it to treat tumors and sores. Iti 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.

There are a few problems, like rainy days, an age-old problem for beekeepers. These slow their work and can damage their stored products.

However, worldwide beehive die-off is a new issue.

“Beekeeping is a loved tradition in Italy,” said Floriana Ferri, a secretary and technical supervisor for Provincial Consortium Apistica, a regional association of beekeepers. “But it is getting harder for beekeepers. Now it is like a real job, not a hobby.”

The consortium helps train and inform beekeepers in the Marche region. The cause of hive death is still mysterious: theories range from parasites and disease to pesticides.

In 2008, Apicoltura Gabannini lost 40 percent of its production to die-off, Fabrizio Gabannini said.

Despite the drawbacks, Gabannini loves his profession, and hopes that his children will carry it on.

“I love being in close contact with nature,” he said. “I love the bees. They are beautiful and complicated, just like humans.”

This article was adapted from, an annual multimedia project of IEI Media and San Francisco State University.

One comment about “A Way of Life with Bees”

  1. Phill Danze says:

    Great piece and like the use of video too. Thank you.

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