We might say that for Iroko 2019 has been the year of the bee. We started getting to know the complex world of bees and beekeeping this February, thanks to agronomist and beekeeper Davide Lobue. He introduced some of our beneficiaries to this vast field, allowing them to dip their toes in and gain some understanding of what it means to work with these creatures.
For around 10 sessions a selected group of people, most of whom were women and almost all from Nigeria, participated in a mini-course on the theoretical side of beekeeping. Some of these sessions were held in an apiary, also allowing the participants to come into contact with the bees. Alongside reactions of fear, curiosity and surprise, it was a positive experience for all, an insight into the world of bees.
Among the participants, there were some asylum seekers, others with long-term leave to remain or work permits. From the initial group, two people have been selected to begin the practical phase of the project, which will finish at the end of September. The two young Nigerian asylum seekers, are carrying out this activity with a short-term flexible contract (un contratto di collaborazione occasionale), both at the apiary of APS Parco del Nobile, a partner association, as well as at the recently installed apiary at our farmhouse (Cascina del Rio) in Villamiroglio, in the province of Alessandria outside Turin.
The objective of the project is to create an opportunity for social and economic integration for migrants, which forms part of a process of change and inclusion. Integration, as we know, is a long and continuous process that requires concrete opportunities, key among which are training and job opportunities.
Our idea is that this practical phase of the project will continue for the two beneficiaries and hopefully also become an opportunity for training and work for others, starting among the other participants from the first, theoretical phase of the current project.
We are already thinking about how to expand the project: we would like to offer participants, on top of experience with bees and techniques for honey extraction, knowledge and understanding around the management and administration of their own start-up producing organic honey. This would allow them to set up their own business or cooperative, which is even more effective as a route to autonomy when we consider the high rate of unemployment in Italy and the challenges that many people, especially migrants, encounter when searching for work.
We would also like to introduce an element of peer-education into the future of the project, capitalising on the skills and experience of the participants who have already been involved and equipping them with the extra skills necessary to become trainers themselves. Not only does this help render the whole project sustainable, but it also recognises the value of personal knowledge and experiences, particularly of migration and of the language and culture of their country of origin, in terms of communication and mediation between peers.
Through this project we hope to bring some of the mentality and culture of bees into our work. In a beehive there are various roles, but everyone works together ultimately contributing towards the same goal. Success can only be collective, and that’s how we see integration: society must work together as a cohesive whole and can then also reap the benefits as a whole.
But what does working with bees really entail? How do they interact with human beings? And how do they communicate with each other? We asked Wilfred, one of the participants, who told us about his experience in the world of these precious creatures.
Wilfred: “Bees are very sensitive to noise, but if I work with them without hesitation, calmly, there’s no problem. Otherwise they sting! If they are nervous they usually fly around more, so it’s better not to get too close to them. At the beginning I was scared, but already by the second time with the bees I began to understand how to behave.
“During these 3 months working with them my relationship with the bees has changed: at the start they seemed almost wicked, but now I understand them better and I know how to approach them, what not to do, and I have established a kind of mutual trust. I’ve also learnt about the different ways they communicate with each other: the worker bees emit an odour to warn the others of dangers. They also communicate through a kind of dance or movement and they respond to the odour of the queen bee. They react together as if they were one large organism. They move together and if one stings you then the others aren’t far behind!
“I enjoy this field of work and I’d like to find a way for it to become part of my daily life long-term.”
There is certainly no shortage of challenges in this kind of project and Davide, who has been working as a beekeeper and educator for several years and has already been part of two other projects with asylum seekers, talked to us about these challenges as well as the successes and satisfaction that he experiences.
Davide: “The difficulties are largely linked to comprehension of the Italian language, even though this is a practical activity, however complex, that allows us to overcome the language barrier and differences in our backgrounds. Teaching the theoretical elements of beekeeping is more difficult to manage within this project. For example, if we are in the laboratory to extract honey, we have to be extremely careful not to mix the honeys from different origins because Italians care about buying a specific type of honey, pure chestnut or pure acacia, for example. It’s not easy to understand this immediately, but in apiculture precision is crucial.
“The satisfactions? When I see that they manage to work almost autonomously with the bees, that their approach has changed and they’re no longer scared, this is when I can really see that they have learnt something.
“For now I think their next step could be trying to work without gloves, which really signifies a level of trust in themselves and their abilities, as well as in the bees.
I think Wilfred could certainly continue this journey. For simplicity during this relatively short project we have focused solely on the production and extraction of honey, but apiculture includes much more than this. It means learning many more things, from breeding queen bees to the production of propolis and wax, and even working on the training side with schools. For Wilfred a second stage of apiculture training would be needed to learn how to collect the pollen.”
Our hope is that this training and knowledge base won’t only be available to the participants themselves, but that it can also reach beyond the apiary and be introduced into schools in San Donato, the area where we work, with the support of Parco del Nobile Association who have plenty of experience in education. Our idea for the educational side of this project in the future is to get children involved in apiculture, but also bring them into direct contact with nature more broadly, with plants and vegetable gardens, alongside the scope for these activities to become a way for migrants and children to interact. Integration, understanding between people from different walks of life, always starts at an individual level.
In short, we are working hard in the hope that this project can continue and expand. You can see some of the work our beneficiaries have done in our photo gallery and, although we have had a difficult summer for production levels due to high temperatures, soon you’ll be able to taste our very own honey!