True Locals

The Bee-King: Beekeeper Kurt Kriegl

14. May 2018

Kurt Kriegl’s life really is ‘sweet’ when it comes to his hobby – he is a beekeeper and looks after up to 1,000,000 bees and the environment with great enthusiasm. This is a hobby where the rewards are happiness and satisfaction, as well as some tasty honey.

Honey in his veins

“Other people love skiing, golf or cycling – my hobby is bees!” Kurt says with a sense of pride. He is an enthusiastic amateur beekeeper. But he never really chose this hobby, he was more born into it. “I grew up with bees around me as my father was also a beekeeper,” Kurt says. You could say that he was born with honey in his veins.

“Isn’t it quite a dangerous hobby?” we wanted to know. After all, bees know how to inflict a good degree of pain if you get too close to them? “Not at all!” Kurt replies. It is really a harmless and, above all, peaceful pastime. Kurt is an example of this peace – he speaks calmly and quietly, with a lilting dialect. You can imagine that the bees like being around him.

Black and yellow, social and peaceful

“You don’t need to be afraid of bees!” Kurt has only ever worn protection two or three times in his life during his work with the bees – they only sting on very rare occasions. And when he does get stung, Kurt sees it as a form of medicine, as bee venom has been used for many centuries to treat rheumatism and in warming ointments. He is sad when he does get stung though, as a bee always pays for the sting with its life. And Kurt loves every one of his bees. “Hardly anyone realises how intelligent and social they really are!” he says.

Busy bees – and an even busier beekeeper

Being a beekeeper is not just about collecting the tasty honey – that is just the icing on the cake after the work. “A beekeeper has plenty of things to do,” Kurt says. First, he or she must see that the bees are doing well: they need, for example, a hive so that they can live happily for the entire year round. There must be enough nourishment in winter for them to survive the cold months. This is especially important as honey is a source of food for the bees. If a beekeeper takes this away, then they receive sugar-water as a replacement. “I always leave honey in the combs for the bees though, so that they can use the valuable ingredients – within reason,” says Kurt. He also makes sure that the bees can find a good variety of food during the summer months. Burgi, his wife, knows all about wild flowers and herbs and helps him with this. She is an expert in plants and apitherapy (that is “products from the beehive”: such as pollen, propolis, royal jelly, wax, bee venom and honey). “I couldn’t do all this without her help!” says Kurt. Her work also helps many other insects: caterpillars, butterflies, beetles and other useful insects.

Bees in facts and figures

Kurt looks after up to a million bees – at least in summer. In the winter months the figure is ‘only’ 20,000. The bee population booms in the summer – almost an explosion in numbers. Bees are particularly busy in the summer months, especially when it comes to producing offspring. The arithmetic is simple: at her best, the queen bee lays 2,000 to 2,500 eggs in a day. (That is more than 150% of her own bodyweight!) The bees hatch after 21 days – in the summer up to 2,500 bees can be born in one day. A massive circle of life.

Bees live for different periods of time depending on the season: a bee only lives for around six weeks during the summer. This is when a bee must do a lot of work, flying and producing honey. In winter, when a bee does not fly, it lives between six and eight months. The queen bee beats all of them, though: she can live up to an age of five years. One reason is that her folk look after her so well. She enjoys a special nourishment: the ‘Royal Jelly’, a ‘juice fit for queens’ and a secret that the bees produce from glands in their head. Only the best is good enough for the queen.

Did you know…?

Bees – the smallest working animal in the world – are true survival specialists. For example, during the winter there is a lot more going on in the beehive than you would think. Did you know that bees cluster together to protect themselves and the queen? In the centre of this mass it is always a comfortable 25°C. The queen bee sits there and is fed by her worker bees. There is always activity so that all bees can take their turn in the warmth and food. In this way bees are not affected by external temperatures down to -25°C!

And did you know that bees are experts in navigation? Every queen bee emits her own pheromone that replicates her vitality and creates a ‘unique’ scent. Every bee can find its own population even when searching amongst 20 beehives. A wonder, these little bees!

Bees in danger: colony collapse

Bee death, or colony collapse disorder, is no longer a myth and is a sad reality now that it has reached Europe. Beekeepers have observed the phenomenon, which kills whole populations, over the last few decades. But why does it happen? There are many factors which are responsible. “One of them is the use of pesticide and glyphosate. These are neonicotinoids, a form of nerve poison, that are used in farming to protect against insect infestation,” explains Kurt. These pesticides also damage useful insects – not only bees, but also butterflies, useful beetles and many others.

Another reason for the bee death is the Varoa mite. “That is a kind of spider that infests the bees. It is like ticks are with people.” says Kurt. The Varoa mite acts as a leech on the bees and poisons the blood circulation. Hobby beekeepers can protect their populations as well as they can from Varoa. But wild bees are left to their own devices with no-one to protect them from the fatal mite.

Colony collapse: what we can do

Is there anything that we can do to help bees? The good news is that the answer is ‘Yes’. Even better: it is easy. If we plant flowers that bees prefer for nourishment in our gardens and on our balconies, then that helps a lot. The golden rule is any plant which has plenty of pollen and nectar is good. Plants which do not need to reproduce are not helpful. “I always say that you shouldn’t be frightened of a little mess!” says Kurt. “A bit of mess is good for many forms of life!” We can also help by not using poisons and letting a few wild plants and flowers grow. Nettles, for example – these are food sources for many caterpillars and good for humans as well, as a soup, form of spinach, or with the seeds used in a salad.

Be conscious of the environment

“I wish that more people were conscious of the nature around them and were less frightened of insects!” says Kurt. “It is great when you can stop for a moment and just enjoy nature.” Maybe we can take this to heart the next time we go for a stroll or a walk and keep our eyes and ears open. Who knows, perhaps we will see bees flying over the meadows, a butterfly spreading its wings, a beetle making its way around sticks and stones, or a worm disappearing into the earth… and many other things that we otherwise never notice!

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Kurt Kriegl has a sweet hobby: he is a beekeeper and master of 1 million bees. In this interview he tells us more about bees and how we can protect them.Fotos: Fabrice Dall’Anese

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