Sarah Wyndham Lewis, professional Honey Sommelier, embarks on a Relais & Chateaux honey trail through 5 beekeeping properties, highlighting their fierce commitment to safeguarding bees and the environment.
Relais & Chateaux’s transparently honest connection with the environment is reflected in the unique ecosystems of eighty-eight properties throughout the world that have their own beehives. As a long-term collaborator with the association, I have interviewed five of the beekeeping properties intimately connected with the land to discuss how their output of honey reflects the benefits the bees derive from the chemical-free, densely green and highly productive land belonging to and surrounding the individual hotels.
My journey starts in what is described as the ‘Heaven in The Sky’, where utter tranquillity reigns at Tenku no Mori, Kyushu, Japan. Set deep in wooded mountains, this remote property offers bees a perfect haven. They return the favour by pollinating the organic vegetable gardens. Yap Meng Yee, Beekeeper at the property, is preserving semi-wild Apis japonica bees, which he describes as “very rare and precious” and pays careful attention to this native honeybee’s particular requirement for space, siting hives far apart in the forest to avoid competition.
Tenko no Mori is a perfect illustration of how beekeeping needs to be incredibly sensitive, both to the bees and to the terroir. Most Relais & Châteaux properties are intensely environmentally aware, acknowledging the importance of protecting the hundreds of wild species, which co-exist and often share forage resources with their honeybees. Tailoring hive numbers on their properties in line with forage availability to avoid unnecessary competition, they also plant to support a wide variety of pollinator species, some of which, unlike the human-managed honeybee, truly are on the verge of extinction. Nurturing varied pollinator species brings thrilling biodiversity to the estates, with the presence of these insects directly supporting the success of countless plants and animals large and small.
Tenku no Mori, Japan
Carefully sited and managed, bees are a touchstone of the association’s commitments on many fronts, including its ongoing partnership with the global Slow Food movement and the championing of local, seasonal and heirloom produce. Much of that produce will involve bee-pollination, either by the hardworking honeybee or its equally essential wild cousins, the bumblebees and solitary bee species.
But life becomes ever harder for all bees. The sheer speed of climate change, monoculture farming and urbanisation are profoundly affecting all pollinator life cycles worldwide. And it’s set to get harder still for many, with Britain, France and many European countries overturning bans on neonicotinoid insecticides, a controversial group of products fiercely challenged by environmentalists. The use of agrochemicals is, though, just one tile in a complex mosaic of stressors affecting insect pollinators. With immune systems stressed by hunger, pollinating insects become less resistant to disease, pests and aggressive predators. Beekeepers, ecologists and sustainability experts are able to point at both areas of great concern and other situations where positive action for good has preserved or re-established essential balance and biodiversity.
My next stop on the honey trail is Chateau St. Gerlach, a country estate just outside Maastricht in the Netherlands, where Head Chef and Beekeeper Otto Nijenhuis celebrates the synergy between providing rich forage for pollinators and the productivity of the estate’s gardens. Very often, chefs are also the beekeepers at their properties, highlighting the profound connection between bees and primary food production. “We are in the middle of a nature reserve, with the apiary in our orchard giving us more and better fruit. Our spring honey comes from fruit yard blossoms, cherries, apples, plums and pears, and our summer honey from the lime trees, vegetables and herbs in our own kitchen gardens.” The secret of good beekeeping, he says, is “To love and respect your bees”. Importantly, he notes that honey production is not the prime motivator for keeping bees on the estate. Rather, it is to offer them a sanctuary in which they can live their best lives.
“Bees are such an amazing representation of the delicate balance of nature,” explains Dustin Busby, Farmstead Manager at the luxurious pastoral 1,700-hectare Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, USA, which also produces its own cheese, vegetables and preserves. “The fact that they haven’t evolved in thousands of years says that it’s our job not to strip them of what they need for survival. I think they’ve shown that if we can do this for them, they will do their part and give us an amazing bounty of sustenance and life”. Outside the property though, he sees direct evidence of a key problem affecting pollinator numbers worldwide. “Monoculture and dependence on synthetic fertilizer and herbicides has affected apiaries in East Tennessee,” he reckons. “Lucky for us, we have an extensive property surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our hives are on a hill above our three-acre vegetable garden and our organic farming practice eliminates pesticides. We look on honey as an added bonus.”
“The honeybee is the most adaptable of the world’s 25,000 different bee species,” acknowledges Lorenzo de Laugier, another professional beekeeper who manages the hives at the exquisite Villa Crespi, on the shore of Lake Orta, in the lushly wooded mountains above Milan in Italy. Affectionately, he refers to honeybees as “opportunistic insect with a thousand resources” surviving over 80 million years of planetary upheavals is now living on every continent except Antarctica. Running other apiaries in the area, Lorenzo is well placed to observe that “even in environmental havens, agrochemistry can be a difficult problem to solve,” and he emphasises reducing colony stress by using only natural and biological substances to control pest and diseases in the hives (this being a key principle of sustainable beekeeping.) He mentions other near-universal pressures too. “Climate change, forage poverty, the varroa mite… these are devastating factors that create strong stress for the colony. Today’s beekeeping model is certainly different from the one that many of us started with.”
French insectologist David Delaporte, who runs the hives at Domaine des Hauts de Loire in the Loire Valley notes a “sudden change. Heatwaves follow one after the other and have a deleterious effect on bee colonies. These periods of heat and repetitive drought are killing large numbers of trees in our region.” Flowering trees are a primary food resources for honeybees and other insect species, making their loss a biodiversity disaster…. for this and many other ecological reasons. Vast numbers of trees have also been torn up from landscapes globally, both to harvest timber and to pave the way for monoculture farming, with vast areas devoted to single crops. David explains why, apart from the obvious decrease in vital forage variety, this impacts so negatively on pollinators, “The main problem is the simplification of our landscapes. Monoculture leads to loss of biodiversity and the need to resort to chemicals.”
Luckily, his bees at des Hauts de Loire, a romantic former hunting lodge set in 70 hectares in the heart of France’s chateau region, are well insulated from this, with ancient forest to feast amongst, as well as the organically managed kitchen gardens and orchards at the property. Elsewhere though, David has first-hand experience of chemical use, noting that “Some of my (other) apiaries are unfortunately exposed to devastating treatments. In agricultural areas where crops are subjected to chemical treatments, it is difficult or sometimes impossible for bee colonies to survive.”
Les Hauts de Loire, France