Bernardo Lliteras is passionate about bees. No one doubts he knows more than anyone else on the island about every aspect of apiculture. He has a library of over 300 books on the subject, hives full of honey and has collected so many historic objects from the art of bee-keeping around the world that several years ago Llubi town council gave him an old flour mill in which to create the island’s sole bee museum.
You can visit the Bee museum in Llubi, the personal tour is free, although due to the size of the place there is a maximum number of people allowed to visit at one time. Whatever the day of the week or the month of the year, whenever someone calls Bernat and asks about the museum, he travels from Palma and gives them the full guided tour for free. You can ask him about each and any of the pieces: each has a story, a small fragment of a jigsaw, but all this could be about to be thrown away. But it’s not sure for how much longer this will be possible as Bernat has to move his collection to a new location, destination currently unknown. And with no budget for the museum it’s doubtful that the collection can remain intact. The town council have decided it wants the building back to try and make some money from it. The electricity supply has already been cut off.
When I go to visit him at the museum I am met by him and his children. It’s obviously a family affair and although Bernat is clearly the most passionate about his collection and his bees, all of his grown up kids support him and are full of knowledge as well. There are around 200 objects through which you can see the development of beekeeping through the centuries including hives, extractors, masks, and more. It’s the result of more than thirty years of patient collecting: Bernat’s grandfather used bees to pollinate the family’s land but he passed away before he could teach Bernat, so Bernat taught himself through books. As he delved into the intricate lives of bees and the rich history of beekeeping Bernat started to discover curious objects and so his collection began. Soon not only was he finding objects in farms across the island but he was being given them. Now he possesses objects which originate from Majorca and all over Europe and even Africa. Bernat’s collection of beekeeping equipment and paraphernalia not only stretches across continents it also goes far back in time to the mid-1600s when beeswax was more valuable than honey as it was used to make candles from: there was even a law which punished you if you adulterated the wax with animal fats. And so the bee museum was born partly out of necessity to have somewhere to store all these artefacts, and also to have the opportunity to communicate the vast knowledge that Bernat has to interested people.
But why bother with bees? These days most of us know how important they are to the equilibrium of our planet’s ecosystem, and how endangered they are. Bees help to pollinate 75% of the world’s food crops, while honey, propolis, pollen and venom have extensive medicinal uses. Since the early 1990s billions of bees have been dying across the globe in a phenomena known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). In September 2013 37 million bees were wiped out on a single Canadian farm. There are no wild bees left in Britain and the rest of Europe is also feeling the effects of CCD, which scientists believe to be caused through complex chain reactions between pesticides, fungicides and modern monoculture farming methods. The situation has become so acute that there is an international drive to help and encourage hobby bee-keepers in towns and countryside alike. Today city rooftops are buzzing. There are hives on top of the Paris Opera House, London’s exclusive Fortnum & Mason’s store, and many of the emblematic buildings of New York. Increasing numbers of “stingless” bees are being bred to help urban beekeepers to thrive. Although the bees have suffered horribly over the past 15 years, in much of Europe this is an exciting and dynamic time for budding bee enthusiasts. Even in the centre of Palma I have heard about hives of bees.
Up in Llubi the situation drags on, uncertainly. Bernat continues to painstakingly research the background of each object he has to establish exactly what the piece was used for and then display this information via photocopied sheets from bee keeping books with handwritten notes. But he needs somewhere permanent to house his collection, somewhere accessible, ideally he says he would like it to be in Palma as that is where he lives. Details of the great bee colonies of Calvia, hives used by African Masai warriors, reproductions of protective clothing from the 16th century, and endless curiosities from around the world may end up in a skip within a couple of months.
“I have nowhere to keep them,” Bernat said sadly. “It’s 35 years of work, but it needs an area where things can be labelled properly, with interactive zones that can bring the stories alive.” For many Europeans a bee museum could become a fascinating stop on their winter tourism agenda, but with every passing day its survival looks less likely. I ask him what we can do to help, I think he probably needs an angel but Bernat says “Anyone can help, with their heart they can help”. At the entrance of the museum there is a small statue of Saint Ambrolio, patron saint of apiculture. Both the bees and Bernat could use a little of his divine intervention right now.
Bernat teaches beekeeping and runs short courses. You can find the Bee Museum at “Museo de Apicultura de Llubí”. You can contact Bernat by email on firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 686 230 703.
By Vicki McLeod, with Stephanie Mason
Photos by Oliver Neilson