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A kingdom for the bees

Filomena and Amalia Oberschartner lived on the Plattnerhof until 1975 – without any electricity, gas or running water. Today, the farm in Renon is not only a witness to a time long past, but also a beekeeping museum and home to countless bees.

Bees buzz past me as I walk up to the Beekeeping Museum. The historic Plattnerhof farm is located on a meadow slope in Costalovara sull’Altipiano in Renon. Its thatched roof makes for a wonderful contrast against the bright blue summer skies.

It is cool and dark in the 600-year-old farmhouse. I put my hand on the pitch black wall in the hallway. It is covered in soot. The smoke has been gathering here for centuries. In the kitchen the stone walls have also turned black. The two sisters, Filomena and Amalia, used to cook with an open fire and hung bacon, sausages and knuckles of pork from the ceiling in order to smoke them. I can still smell the fat. The farm’s former washing machine is also located here: a large copper kettle embedded in a wall structure. Considering the time back then, the toilet, directly adjacent to the kitchen, is ultra-modern in comparison. On most other farms you had to go out into the cold to relieve yourself.

Mena and Mala, as they were called in the village, probably preferred to spend their winter days in the wood-paneled parlor, the only heated room in the farm. “Here they sat at the spinning wheel or knitted, while their six cats lolled about on the oven bridge,” says Marc Gramm, who shows me around the premises. The Gramm family bought the farm in 1987 and, after renovations in 1991, turned it into a museum. To this day he keeps the secrets of beekeeping within these old walls.

The farmhouse was once built on a stone slab (German: “Platte”) – hence the name ‘Plattnerhof’.

From the living room I get to the bedroom through a connecting door. With my height of 1.60 m, I just barely have to duck my head. A straw sack wrapped in linen served as a mattress. A prayer book lies open on a chair. Next to it a sunday dress neatly hangs on a hook on the wall. It seems as if Mena is still living here and has just left the room. Maybe she went to fetch fresh water from the village well.

A journey back in time to the simple rural life awaits visitors at the Plattnerhof.

Other belongings of the sisters, which are displayed in the second bedroom, bear witness to the simple farm life they led: black-and-white photos of field work, faded school books, carefully arranged rows of letters and even a slate. Suddenly I hear a hum in the background. I approach a narrow wooden box on the window sill and carefully open it on the right side.

The new residents of the farm can be seen behind a glass wall: hundreds of bees crawl all over the honeycomb. I gently place my hand on the bottom half of the glass. It’s very warm. This is where the brood is, which is why the animals have to keep their body temperature at a constant 36°C; for this reason there are a lot of bees in the lower area. On the other side, higher up, where the honey is stored in the honeycomb, the glass is cold. In the crowd I spot a larger bee with a blue dot: that’s the queen bee. Every three years the beekeepers breed a new queen and give her an internationally standardized color dot. She is the only bee which is fed with royal jelly: a bright yellow, custard-like superfood. The queen only leaves the hive once in her life for her nuptial flight. For ten days she is mated by several drones that fertilize her eggs. The young bees later hatch from these. I close the wooden door of the showcase again, because it’s supposed to be pitch black in the beehive – thanks to their excellent sense of touch, the animals still find their way around.

The bees have already inspired many a poet, as can be discovered on the nature trail.

I leave the old living quarters and step back into the entrance area. Here, where Mena and Mala once stored straw and grain, Marc is telling his visitors interesting facts about the farm and the bees, while a 7.5 t heavy straw roof is enthroned above his head. The stalks of rye are packed tightly together, protecting the farm from the rain. Even the snow has no grip on the sloping roof. “The roof has to be replaced every 30 years. The material for this grows right in front of the farm – free of charge. While expensive larch clapboards were installed above the living area to protect the building even better”, explains Marc. The farm also had a pond, the water of which was used in case of fires right next to the house, but today water lilies float in there.

On the trail of beekeeping

The light from the glass shimmers against the shelves right next to the front door and flickers in light yellow, amber and almost black colors. Over 30 varieties of honey can be tasted here: from sweet Alpine rose honey to buckwheat honey that tastes of liquorice. With a teaspoon, I scrape a piece of honeycomb out of a bowl. The sweet, soft wax spreads in my mouth like chewing gum.

Forest and blossom honey, pollen, wax, propolis – people have been trusting the products of bees for centuries.

Behind the counter, a staircase leads down to the basement, which was built during the renovation by the merchant family Gramm from Bolzano. There used to be a hole through which farmers threw fodder for cows and pigs down into the barn. Beehives of various sizes are on display in the old drinking trough. The honeycombs used to be torn out, stacked on top of each other in the wax press and loaded with a heavy weight. The result was not pure honey as we know it today. In this mass there was everything that the beehive could produce: honey, pollen, propolis, larvae. The honey extractor was not developed until 1860: the honeycombs are placed in a cylinder that is now operated mechanically. The honey is pressed outwards by the centrifugal force, collects on the bottom and can be bottled. In the past, several beekeepers shared a honey extractor, and sometimes even a bicycle chain was used to drive it.

The bees fly to 60 million flowers for a glass of honey that weighs 500 g.

I let my eyes wander further through the former stables. Artfully painted sticks made of wood are put together to form a wall. The individual color, so it was thought in the past, should make it easier for the bees to find their way back. But bees orient themselves with the sun and through the pheromones of their queen. They only perceive primary colors. How exactly they see the world can be discovered by looking through a small glass window on the nature trail, which leads around the hill next to the farm in nine stations with display boards and games.

After visiting the museum, my head is spinning with all the information, as if a bee was busy flying back and forth in it. Who would have thought that a single bee would have to work for three weeks to make the honey I put on my bread in the morning?

Renon: the summer residence of people from Bolzano

With its meadows, the towering earth pyramids and the gorgeous views of the Dolomites, the high plateau of Renon is the perfect destination for a summer excursion. You can reach it with a cable car from Bolzano that offers dizzying views over the city. Once at the top you can take South Tyrol’s only narrow-gauge railway to Costalovara sull’Altipiano. From there it only takes about five minutes to walk to the Plattnerhof farm.