‘Without bees, there’s no life’: the buzzing oasis of Veneto

Credit: Lorenzo Buzzoni

“After graduating in agronomy, I took a different path. But in the end, the call of nature was too strong,” says Matteo de Simone while he puts on his puncture-proof yellow bee suit. Crowds of bees buzz frantically around as he readies the bee smoker for his hives: “The smoke means ‘fire in sight’ to the bees and this makes them… less concerned about our presence.” 

This small slice of Venetian countryside, filled with lavender plants and wild grasslands, has become a haven for thousands of bees. For de Simone, who works for a logistics firm in nearby Rovigo, the blooming meadow is the realization of a life-long passion.

“I started this project because I want to leave something that will last,” the 51-year-old says.

The Saving Bees project, launched in 2019, is on a mission to protect and promote natural beekeeping methods. It aims to awaken a “bee-consciousness” among citizens and alert them that “without bees, there’s no life”.

Credit: Lorenzo Buzzoni
The project has has created an entirely natural, pesticide-free ‘bee oasis’ on the 1.5-hectare plot.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of food worldwide, 71 are pollinated by bees. Almost 80 per cent of wildflower species and 84 per cent of cultivated species in the EU are partly dependent on insects for seed production.

But as industrial-scale agriculture, pesticide use and climate change accelerate, so too do the dangers to bees.

Beekeepers in western Europe have warned that colony numbers have declined over the last 15 years, while experts have estimated that nearly one in 10 wild bee species face extinction in Europe. Meanwhile, the banning of certain “bee-killing” neonicotinoid pesticides was criticized after several EU member states managed to circumvent the 2018 rulings.

Excessive pesticide use was a driving force behind what Greenpeace Italy declared a “silent slaughter” of bees. Researchers in Lombardy found bee numbers plummeted by 12 million in Spring 2022, warning that the regional depopulation figures are likely the “tip of the iceberg”.

“Neonicotinoids, even below the lethal dose, have been shown to cause neurotoxicity in bees so the bee can no longer orientate itself,” de Simone says. “Unable to return home, the family is impoverished and can no longer survive.”

A short film on the Saving Bees project in Rovigo, Veneto. Credit: Lorenzo Buzzoni

Saving Bees prioritizes traditional cultivation techniques and has created an entirely natural, pesticide-free “bee oasis” on its 1.5-hectare plot. Flower-rich areas have returned to the meadow, allowing wild bees to breed, pollinate and spread across the land.

“Nature needs disorder, many different species, many different plants, not monocultures,” de Simone adds. “But [the agricultural sector is] constantly mowing the riverbanks, weeding the fields, and so there are no more blooms.” 

Europe has 2,000 wild bee species and although awareness of bees’ importance to biodiversity has increased and campaigns have mobilized millions of citizens, some experts say initiatives often wrongly focus on the honey bee.

Credit: Lorenzo Buzzoni
Matteo de Simone hopes his project will awaken a “bee-consciousness” among citizens.

“Honey bees are actually very useful for food production, but only in some crops, and actually as pollinators, they’re not necessarily as good as wild bee species,” Professor Phil Stevenson from London’s Kew Gardens says. “We can’t simply do without all these other wild species because they all contribute meaningfully to pollination.”

While the Saving Bees project relies on its ‘adopt a beehive’ scheme and sales from its honey for funding, its founder says the most important aspect remains the welfare of the bees. “We calmly wait for them to serve themselves first,” he explains. “And only after they have set aside everything they need, do we take the surplus honey.”

De Simone, who recently opened a second project in neighbouring Trentino, is not waiting for the new EU regulation to make its way through Brussels, though. He is forging ahead on his own path. “Some time ago there was talk of leaving areas uncultivated,” he says. “But why leave areas uncultivated? Let’s create flowering areas of uncultivated areas.”