Story: A beekeeper in Mendrisiotto

All hail the queen

A friendship that has lasted more than 40 years. Amidst green fields and white-blossoming chestnut groves, tiny little workers create a sweet nectar that tastes of passion, tradition and hard work.

With the help of around fifty bee colonies, apiarist Carmelo Zanatta from Stabio makes high-quality Ticino honey sustainably and with a love for the region. Acacia in Mendrisiotto, millefiori around Lugano and rhododendron in the Bedretto Valley are just a few of his honey specialities, resulting from a passion that developed purely by chance.

THE CHARACTER

Carmelo Zanatta, beekeper and bee inspector

Carmelo Zanatta, beekeper and bee inspector
My favourite place to relax is out in nature with my bees.

Is there any better symbol of an early summer’s day than a bumbling bee buzzing from one flower to the next? But get ten thousand of them all swarming out of the hive together in search of the nearest fragrant chestnut grove and the impression becomes rather different: powerful, dynamic – and more than a little intimidating. Or at least to your average person. Beekeeper Carmelo Zanatta, however, swells with pride in his protective clothing, armed with his smoker. “There’s nothing as beautiful as seeing how the hive comes to life of a morning.” And today is a very special day for him as it marks the coronation of a new queen. 

It has been a good 46 years since Carmelo Zanatta was asked by an acquaintance whether he would like to take over two beehives. “No, thanks! was my answer,” laughs the retired carpenter and furniture salesman. “I didn’t have a clue about bees.” But when he went home that evening and told his wife Maria Giuseppina about the offer, she jumped at the chance. “She told me I had to accept, and that my father-in-law would teach me everything I needed to know.” And what a stroke of luck that decision was.

THE FULL STORY


Stabio, Mendrisiotto

Not only did beekeeping become Zanatta’s new life-long passion and practically a full-time job once he retired, but it also saw the continuation of an important tradition in Mendrisiotto with sustainability and quality at the forefront. His products all carry the Ticino regio.garantie quality mark, the Swiss honey seal and the alpinavera regional product certification. As the bee inspector for Mendrisiotto, he is also responsible for the overall health of the local colonies.

Zanatta has around 50 hives, half of which are just outside Stabio. The path there leads through a delightful hillscape which reveals why Mendrisiotto is also known as the Tuscany of Switzerland. But chestnuts are not the region’s only speciality – acacia honey takes that crown. “Nowhere else in the whole of Switzerland has as many acacia trees as here,” boasts Carmelo. “In May, my bees won’t go near any other flower.”

Stabio, Mendrisiotto
Stabio, Mendrisiotto

And this type of much sought-after honey could not be any purer.

Stabio, Mendrisiotto
Stabio, Mendrisiotto

On the other hand, Zanatta’s hives in Arogno, produce millefiori honey (between spring and summer) from ‘a thousand different flowers’ as its name suggests. When the temperatures rise in July, he takes the bees from Stabio to the Bedretto Valley where they can find rhododendrons – “for honey with a very special taste.” 

I never buy bees; I create new colonies.
Stabio, Mendrisiotto

“Oh! A beautiful new queen!” calls Zanatta as he carefully lifts the lid of the smallest hive, wafting smoke around to calm his precious bees. By separating a colony, the bees have created a whole new family, he explains. The missing queen was replaced by the worker bees themselves who fed the larva a special secretion known as royal jelly. The new queen then grows to full-size in an extra large cell. After emerging from her cell, she undertakes a mating flight in order to provide the hive with young. “I don’t ever have to buy bees in,” explains the beekeeper proudly. 

Pro tip
“Il Pungiglione Zanatta Miele”, Carmelo's company, carries the Ticino regio.garantie seal. Different types of honey, jams and specialities, such as La nocciolata, can be bought directly from the beekeeper himself in Stabio or online.
In Melano you can find Idromele. It is mead (or nectar of the gods), an alcoholic beverage made from honey. It is believed to be the oldest fermented in the world!
The colourful beeswax cloth made of natural materials by Ticino company Beeco are perfect for storing foods. Thanks to their antibacterial properties, foods stay fresher for longer.

Honey production lasts from the beginning of May until the end of August. “Around halfway through that, a colony can produce around 15 kg of each type of honey, provided the weather is right.” The way to tell that the honey is ready is by measuring the humidity in the hive. The full cells are dried out by the bees, which fan their wings to ripen the nectar into honey. The beekeeper can then remove the frame, open the cells that have been sealed by the bees with wax and spin the honey out using a centrifuge.

Stabio, Mendrisiotto
Stabio, Mendrisiotto

The beekeeper can then remove the frame, open the cells that have been sealed by the bees with wax and spin the honey out using a centrifuge.

Stabio, Mendrisiotto
Stabio, Mendrisiotto

From September, the bees are prepared for the coming winter, with protection against the dreaded Varroa mite being the most important task. With everything in place, Carmelo can sit back and enjoy the winter until February when he returns to his beloved charges snuggled up closely to the queen in her hive. 

Stabio, Mendrisiotto

Carmelo's favourite honey? “Miele di melata!” (honeydew honey). He xplains that this type of honey is quite rare in Ticino and is not made from flower nectar. Instead, the bees collect honeydew – a sticky liquid secreted by certain insects as they feed on plant sap from foliage and pine needles. “But that only really happens on very warm and humid days in August.” Honeydew honey is meant to be particularly healthy and is known for its intense flavour with tangy notes.

Zanatta sells his honey in Stabio, in small shops in Taverne, Mendrisio and Ascona, and also at local markets. “For major events and festivals”, his different varieties of honey are sold proudly alongside the delicious jams made by his wife Maria Giuseppina: thirty-one different kinds – limited to around just ten pots a year for each type – guaranteed to be made from fruit taken from her own garden or the local area.  

“I make everything here by hand.” 

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