The Beekeeper

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Oliver Kerstholt Nicola Pitaro

“The honey you eat in childhood defines your idea of real honey,” says beekeeper Aschi Iten. For him, this means honeydew honey from his childhood days on Lake Lucerne. However, the honey he produces – and also enjoys – today in Castiel in Graubünden is millefiori honey: honey from wildflowers. In some ways Aschi Iten moves with the times. In others, Aschi, with his curly grey mop of hair, topped off by a pair of striking dark glasses, says that he is a man with a fairly modest outlook, and tells me what that actually means: “I look to see if something is good and whether it is going to last. I like honest, no-frills things. Good architecture, nice furniture. Things which work, which serve a purpose, something real and solid.” He doesn’t like throwaway goods. So he makes constructive use of his time. Results are important to him, 

and searching for results is how Iten found his calling. He is a physiotherapist, helping people to get well and stay healthy. After he qualified in the early 1970s however, he found that physiotherapy at the time could not achieve the results that he wanted for his patients, which is why he quickly decided to add a second string to his bow, becoming a winegrower.

Iten smiles when he speaks about it. The decision was influenced by his affinity with nature, and this in turn led him to bees. Iten learned his trade in the vineyards on Lake Biel, and among the grapes he also found bees, and he quickly developed – in his own words – “a latent interest” in them,

which still endures today. At 22, the young, wiry Iten returned to Chur and to physiotherapy, as the discipline had now advanced with further research. Here he met the master painter and part-time beekeeper Räth, who he hoped would reveal the secrets of beekeeping to him in his new home. However, Räth’s poor health prevented the idea from coming to fruition as he intended. As his poor health continued, Räth was unable to take care of his bees, leading his wife to ask the young Iten – then a complete novice at beekeeping – for help. “All of a sudden, I was responsible for ten bee colonies, which is around 500,000 bees in total,” he remembers.

Today, he has more than three times this number under his care. The self-taught beekeeper has 30 colonies, comprising 1.5 million bees by his estimate – in summer at least, as the number falls to just a quarter of that in winter. Bee colonies have a matriarchal structure, with the queen at the head. The drones – the males – are banished at the end of summer when they have done their job, and die of starvation. Iten recognises that nature can be cruel. His latent interest in beekeeping quickly developed into expertise. Between March and September, he devotes two half-days a week to beekeeping, which he pursues as a hobby to this day. He normally spends afternoons with his bees, when they are flying and the temperature is above 14°C. Before answering the question of what fascinates him in particular about beekeeping, Iten thinks a while, places the grey cotton scarf around his neck again, then says that it is the fact that there is still so much to learn, even after all these years. And that many of the decisions he makes and the actions he takes when working with the bees are still based on gut instinct. As he wants to give the questioner something a little more concrete to take away, he adds that there is nothing quite like the smell of spring and nectar, wafting into the cool night air as the beehives are ventilated.

Iten’s bees have a maximum flight radius of 3 km. This is very handy, as Castiel, the home of his apiary, is surrounded by a lot of organic farming. It doesn’t really get better than this for bees – apart from when Iten temporarily moves them up the mountain. He calls this Alpine migration, and assures this incredulous layman that it is not something he has just dreamt up. He explains that it is not the same thing as transhumance, which is practised in other types of agriculture. As you might expect, migrating 1.5 million bees into the mountains takes place at night, using an off-road vehicle. “Whatever you do, it always takes longer than planned,” says Iten with a smile, and I can well believe it.

Once on the mountain (during the early Alpine summer between the middle of June and end of July), the bees find new feeding grounds. The technical term is “forage source”. However, this only works if the bees are taken, at night, sufficiently far from their normal foraging radius – otherwise they would simply return home. 

Iten brings his bee colonies to Medergen, right into the middle of what must seem to the bees like a forest of Alpine roses. Turning towards his bees, Iten heads off. The variety of bees that he keeps is called Buckfast, named after the English abbey from which they originate, and where the devoted beekeeper Brother Adam helped establish the Buckfast bee as well as the sweet flavour of its honey around the world, through extensive breeding and selection. Iten describes his bees as peaceful and resilient, and yes, the Buckfast bee generally enjoys good health. This makes them good honey producers, and Iten a successful beekeeper. The smile both on his lips and in his eyes tells you that his hobby brings him the results that he is always looking to achieve. On average he can produce 700-800 kg of honey every summer.

The honey produced by Iten’s bees varies according to the forage source of course, so he offers either classic Castiel bees’ honey or Medergen Alpine honey – both organic quality.

Neither of these includes the honey enjoyed by Iten during his childhood, though both are full of integrity, which any child would want on the menu when eating honey for the first time.

Since 2014, Passugger has sourced honey from Aschi Iten as gifts for friends and customers.