by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters
published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 05/18/17
Amateur beekeeper Dimitris Siozos in Crete with his bee colonies and orange tree in background. (Betsy Herbert -- Contributed)
It’s May 4 — the height of spring in Crete, the largest Greek island. Crete is laid out like a ribbon across the southern Mediterranean Sea. Because of good rains last winter, wildflowers are in full bloom across lush green plateaus that stretch beneath the snow-capped peaks of Crete’s three picturesque mountain ranges.
Much of Crete’s landscape is underlain with karst limestone. Some 1,700 species of wildflowers — one tenth of which are found nowhere else on earth — thrive here on these limestone soils
Over the eons, water has carved out Crete’s limestone mountains to form spectacular deep gorges and caves. That morning, my friend Georgia and I set out to explore one of these gorges. We drove her Citroen rental car from the coastal city of Rethymno up into the Psiloritis mountains to find St. Anthony’s Gorge.
Along the twisting mountain road, as we gawked at the spectacular wildflower bloom, we spotted clusters of beehive boxes in the traffic turnouts. The bees must be having a field day.
I was intrigued. Apparently, local beekeepers transport their honey bee colonies from small villages into the mountains to take advantage of the pollen produced by all these wildflowers.
I wondered how the honeybees in Crete are doing. After all, honey is a key part of the Mediterranean diet and there are more than 1.5 million apiaries in Greece. Are honeybees threatened with mites, pesticide poisoning, and colony collapse disorder (CCD), which threaten honeybees in the rest of the world?
I arranged to visit to a local beekeeper, Dimitris Siozos, who lives in the rustic old village of Sokalia just below the majestic peaks of the White Mountains. His apiary is in the middle of a citrus and avocado grove graced with plenty of wild thistles and other native Cretan wildflowers.
Siozos is an amateur beekeeper who, at age six, starting learning the art from his father. In 1981 his father started his first apiary to earn a living after he lost his job. Over the years, Siozos worked tending the hives, but he says, “I always hated the mountains as a child. They were like a prison to me. I vowed I would never have anything to do with bees.” Instead, Siozos joined the Hellenic Navy where he now serves as a naval officer.
After the Greek economy faltered in the past decade, Siozos needed to supplement his income. He started beekeeping at age 34 ... “the same age that my father was when he started,” he laughs.
Now he has 70 bee colonies that supply his family with some 25 kilograms of honey every year and he sells honey to friends. Obviously though, Siozos loves beekeeping for more than the money. “We need to treat bees as our children,” he said. “The fate of humanity depends on bees for pollination. Think about it. If the bees all die, there will be no more fruit. This will cause a disaster worldwide.”
I asked him what he thought were the major threats to bees in Crete. “The worst threat is the varroa mite, because it is so aggressive.” This parasitic mite is widely considered to be the greatest threat to bees throughout the world, mostly because they carry a virus that has wiped out billions of honeybees.
Siozos says another serious threat to bees in Crete are pesticides known as neonicotinoids. The European Union is taking steps to phase these pesticides out, due to their terrible impacts on bees.
Finally, Siozos takes issue with human treatment of bees. “You can’t treat the bees as an industrial tool. The colony is like a mega-brain and you need all the working parts to function right. We need to save the soul of the bee.”
Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund, Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council, and the Center for Farmworker Families. You may contact her through her website at www.betsyherbert.com.