Eco-innovator uses coffee grounds, oregano and dirt to rebuild thriving local bee populations – Mongiona (CA)
Andrea Rullo is not your typical Calabrian farmer. With a degree in automotive production systems and a career as head of production for one of Europe’s most renowned high end engine makers, at 29 he decided to return to his home town of Mongiana. In a valley surrounded by ancient forests, he found his return marked by confusion and disappointment among his childhood friends and neighbors.
“Why would you leave such a good job in the north to return here. There is nothing going on here: no jobs, no business other than working in the timber plant,” they berated him.
His response to them, then, is what continues to guide him, today, “If there is nothing here, then I can do anything. Everything is added value and there is no local competition.”
“I decided to change my life and live in symbiosis with nature, moving to my familial home in southern Italy in search of a pure environment away from industrial pollution and intensive agriculture. Here in Mongiana, in the province of Vibo Valentia, I have created a small eco-sustainable and multifunctional farm based in full respect of biological cycles. I concentrate on agriculture and beekeeping.”
Andrea started beekeeping by collecting swarms in nature in order to preserve the local species, a hybrid between the Sicilian black bee and the classic ligustica, an undervalued species which is especially adapted to the mountain environment. His farm in Mongiana is located at 921mt above sea level.
At first, he practiced nomadic beekeeping, a practice wherenthe hives are transported in a flatbed truck to diverse locations where agriculture is prevalent. In this way, he could anticipate the seasons, which begin later in the mountains, by transporting the bees closer to the shore to pollinate orange groves and other early flowering plants.
This method, despite being in common use, had numerous drawbacks for his bees. He noticed that they became stressed and behaved erratically beyond that which is expected due to transporting them. He investigated and realized that, despite prohibition against treating fruit trees and crops especially during flowering, the practice was still widely used in the areas he frequented. Unfortunately, he did not react quickly enough and after two years suffered a complete collapse of his bee colonies.
The problem was the need to ensure that every aspect of the bee ecosystem was purely natural and without any form of pollutants, both agricultural and airborn (smog). His only choice was to establish a fixed base in Mongiana where he could control the agriculture and protect the surrounding forest to create a clean environment for both the bees and the flowers they depended on. He had to recreate a perfect symbiotic relationship between honey producers and their source similar to that which had existed for eons but was now scarce.
5 years later and Andrea has succeeded in doing just that by developing natural ways to treat crop parasites that have always necessitated the use of pesticides and treatments. Moreover, he has learned the natural cycles of those same parasites so that the methods he uses are directly targeted at specific stages of their development. Finally, he has accepted that his production will be less than it could be using nomadic bee keeping but the quality of his product, the honey, and the health of his bee populations are his primary focus, now.
To be able to counteract the parasites of cultivated products, some methodologies he has utilizes, include:
Beans are subject to infestations of aphids and ants during the period in which the rain intensifies. The aphids are like ants and attack or bite the surface of the bean plant to suck the sap. To counteract them in a natural way he immediately excluded the common organic methods.
The use of neem oil, a common local treatment, is known to have harmful effects both on the parasite’s predators (such as ladybugs) and on bees. He tried several tests with the localized use of soft soap, which crystallized the aphid but had no effect on ants.
Finally, he discovered that the only completely natural element that has an effective detrrent effect on both species without killing them is the spreading of used coffee grounds. Now, all year long, he collects the organic waste of the very common cafés to be able to spread it along the rows of beans. Due to its acrid odor it is barely tolerated by ants and aphids resulting in them leaving the bean plants alone. The treatment also has a fertilizing effect on the beans.
Potatoes are part of the solenaceae family and are subject to parasites in the vegetative phase of the plant from the doriforas, a beetle of American origin which in Europe has no natural predator on the adult beetle. The only predator that succeeds in containing their propagation in nature is the ladybug, who feed on the eggs deposited in the lower part of the leaves. Like in the case of beans, avoiding the use of chemicals and excluding the use of neem oil on the larvae.
“I researched the problem online and came across a product that has no effect on the other species, on man nor on the surrounding environment. The Bacillus Thuringiensis is a sporigan bacterium living in the ground. This is simply applied to the solenaceae plants infected by the larvae of the dorifora that feed on the leaves. Ingesting the ‘toxin’ while eating the solenaceae harms the digestive tract of the larvae that feed off the plants. This method is completely harmless for other insects because the never feed on the solenaceae and, therefore, do not assimilate it.”
By avoiding the use of herbicide and phytopharmaceuticals in general, Andrea is garanteeing that the agricultural products are truly natural and therefore free of malicious pollutants to man. As a result, even his honey does not show any kind of contamination, the bees are in a pure environment and the population is growing naturally from year to year. Obviously, the biproduct of bee health is of course the highest quality of honey.
Andrea continues to study new ways to help crops and bees, experimenting on purely natural solutions to bee lice. By observing his more than 50 hives of different strains, he has also changed the ways beekeepers work, such as eliminating the use of smoke when handling the bees. While widely used, he noticed that the smoke caused them to retreat into the hive and gorge on honey as if they were preparing to flee. By handling the bees differently and respecting their daily cycles, he no longer needs to use such methods.
The past summer’s climate change crises have had an impact even in Mongiana, where forest fires dominated the summer. It will be seen if continued changes will require Andrea to adapt even further but, for now, the methods he applies are of value to beekeepers and farmers evrywhere.