João Neto, from Melbionisa, talks about organic beekeeping and his fascination with bees.
How did you become a beekeeper?
My uncle had bees. I remember watching him since I was a boy. I started to help him early on, although at the time I didn’t enjoy it, it was hard work. But I have always loved nature, ‘creatures’ in general. When the time came to choose a career, that was the only thing that made sense to me. I studied zootechnical engineering in Évora, but I almost gave up, the first two years were so theoretical. In the third year, though, things changed. I studied beekeeping with Professor António Murrilho, and I fell in love with bees. Bees are the most incredible creatures – the balance they establish with their environment, the way they organise themselves.
I worked for many years as an apicultural technician after graduating, but that was like extending my studies. It was still very theoretical, and I wanted something more practical. Then, in 2006, I managed to get my own bees, and by 2014 producing honey was my sole activity. Up until 2020 organic apiculture was in sharp expansion, but since then everything has changed, for the worse. Tourism accounted for a significant portion of our sales, so the pandemic – and the travel restrictions it caused – impacted us severely. We had to change our business approach. But now, fortunately, things are getting better again.
What fascinates you the most in the bee universe?
Hives are impressive structures: super-organised, almost self-reliant. Bees are a rarity in the insect world because they maintain functional colonies year-round. Together with ants and termites, they are the only big insect family doing this – we call them social insects. Wasps form colonies, too, but only for part of the year: come winter, the colony is gone, only the queen survives, dormant in a nest, waiting to start again in spring. Bees, like ants, are capable of resisting because they evolved to build sufficient food reserves.
I often say bees will teach us how to live, we have a lot to learn from them. They tell us about climate change, about the pesticides around us. Comparing bee colonies with human societies can lead us to an interesting discussion; it raises questions about how we live and organise ourselves. For instance, bees keep a perfect balance between the size of the colony and the available resources at all times. Also, each colony breeds drones that have the role of mating with queens from other colonies. And it’s funny, because people always talk about bees being hardworking, but the truth is they are highly efficient, they organise so well they don’t need to work for seventy per cent of their time.