LIVING WITH BEES
On the south side of the Alps, between the Italian province of Friuli and Slavonia part of Croatia, lies a country of excellent beekeepers. This is Slovenia, one of Europe’s smaller countries, whose population of slightly less than two million can hardly match that of Bucharest or Cape Town. Slovenia has about 8,000 beekeepers. A quick calculation shows that the country has four beekeepers per 1000 inhabitants, which means that the Slovenes are truly a nation of beekeepers.
A RICH BEEKEEPING TRADITION
When sugar was hard to come by, nearly every Slovene farm keept bees alongside other domestic animals. Honey was the only sweetening agent, and wax provided an indispensable material for the making of candles. Bees were kept in low wooden beehives, which were closely stacked together in several long rows. These beehives are called “kranjiči” (Carniolans). A wooden bee-house was usually built in the sheltered part of an orchard. So honey – bee colonies were kept under one roof, protected from snow and cold in the winter and from sweltering heat in summer. Thanks to these advantages, such bee-houses are still very popular in Slovenia today, and contribute to the cultural image of the landscape.
In the mid-eighteenth century, a unique folk art, the painting of beehive fronts, began to emerge in the territory of Slovenia, which was then a part of the Austrian Empire. This was a time when the painting of farm furniture and glass was widely practised. Folk artists, inspired by the smooth wooden boards on the fronts of beehives, started to paint pictures on them. These paintings can still be admired today at the Museum of Apiculture in Radovljica.
Simple bee-houses became true open-air art galleries. Both young and old gathered around them to marvel at the colourful images depicting historical and biblical events, as well as everyday village life. Because of the painted hive fronts the bees were able to orient themselves more easily, and the beekeeper was better able to distinguish between individual beehives. This helped him to remember which bee colony had already swarmed.
ANTON JANŠA – A TEACHER OF BEEKEEPING
The career of the great Slovene teacher of beekeeping, Anton Janša, coincided with the beginning of hive painting. Born in 1734 in the idyllic hamlet of Breznica near Bled, Janša helped on the farm and, as a young man, kept bees. He also took up painting. His desire to continue his education led him to Vienna, where he graduated from art school with honours in 1769. However, he was not destined to become a famous painter like his brothers. At that time the Austrian Empress, Maria Theresa, established a beekeeping school at Augarten, and Janša became the first teacher of beekeeping in this school. The profound knowledge of the lives of bees which he had brought from his home, as well as his exceptional perceptiveness and inherent wit, helped him gain a reputation as an excellent theoretician and beekeeping practitioner.
Janša wrote two books in German, and several ideas expressed in these books seemed simply inconceivable at the time: that drones are not some sort of water carriers, as had been believed, but males that inseminate the honey bee queen in flight; that the queen is the mother of all living beings in the hive, including drones; that the old queen flies out of the hive with the first swarm and the young queen flies out with the next swarm; that bees infested with severe foul brood can be cured by being shaken into another hive and left to starve for several days. This is a method still used, and was recommended by Janša, although people knew very little about this disease at the time. Who knows what else our compatriot would have achieved were it not for his early death at the age of 39. He remains a shining example not only to Slovene beekeepers among whom he originated, but also to Austrian and Viennese beekeepers, with whom he worked prolifically.
THE GRAY BEE
The present territory of Slovenia is the home of the grey bee species, the Carniolan bee (Apis mellifera carnica). Slovene beekeepers also fondly call it the “sivka” – “grizzly” because of the bright grey hair along the edges of its abdomen. Its basic characteristics include gentleness, diligence and an excellent sense of orientation. Because of its gentleness, people started to keep it in beehives close to their homes. News of the gentle character of the grey bee soon spread to other nations – initially in Central Europe, where the aggressive dark species, Apis mellifera mellifera, was endemic. The end of the nineteenth century was the beginning of lively trade in live bees and swarms, later to include Carniolan queens.
Up until the beginning of World War I, specialised Slovene merchants exported tens of thousands of bee colonies and, in many places, these completely superseded the native dark bee. Today, their work is being continued by honeybee queen breeders, who sell approximately 40,000 queens, mostly to the countries of Central and Western Europe, with exports increasing annually.
A COUNTRY OF HONEY
Alongside the active trade in bees, specialised apiarian fairs were organised in some Slovene towns, where farmers brought thousands of beehives full of honey after summer pasturing. These fairs usually took place around the 10th of August each year. The buyers were bee merchants, honey and mead sellers, and candlemakers, who bought hives because of their honey and wax. The bees were usually killed with using sulfur, the honeycombs cut out and the wax compressed in special presses, melted and made into candles. Most of the honey was sold in the country or exported to neighbouring countries, some being used to make mead and gingerbread. Human creativity and talent for design were soon revealed in the making of gingerbread. This unique art, passed down from generation to generation, is still preserved today. In some places, particularly in the surroundings of Škofja Loka, there are genuine artists who make various gingerbread figures from a mixture of honey, rye flour, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and potash, and adorn them with colourful floral images. In the past, gingerbread was only made on special occasions, such as weddings; today it is sold to tourists as a unique souvenir of Slovenia.
AN ACCLIMATISED SPECIES
Let us return to the Carniolan grizzly, which is successfully kept in Slovenia, Austria and Croatia, as well as elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. For centuries this bee species has adapted to the climate and foraging conditions of the country. It tolerates cold, snowy winters,as well as frequent rainy and windy summers, and makes good use of available forage. One of its beneficial characteristics is the discovering and collecting of honeydew from spruce and fir trees, and in this regard it surpasses other breeds. It also has a well-developed hygienic behaviour, which makes it less prone to diseases.
The Carniolian bee spends its winters in small clusters with a relatively modest food supply, but its development in spring is explosive, and colonies sometimes reach their peak as early as May. Such a rapid build-up often takes beekeepers by surprise, and if they do not provide their bees with enough space for storing honey, the swarming may soon begin.. The inclination towards swarming is not a desired quality in the bees of large, commercially-oriented beekeepers. By appropriate selection and breeding, experts at the Institute of Agriculture in Ljubljana are determined to select bee colonies which are less inclined to swarm and are thus acceptable for more demanding bee buyers around the world.
They also select bee colonies with an inherent resistance to the Varroa mite.
THE TRANSPORT OF BEES
Almost 60% of Slovenia is covered with mixed coniferous and deciduous forests, which offer rich forage for bees. The most important honey-producing trees are fir and spruce, followed by sweet chestnut, lime, maple and wild cherry. Colonies are fairly equally distributed throughout the country, which enables good pollination of cultivated and wild plants and thus it is not necessary for beekeepers to migrate to fruit plantations or larger crops of rape and clover. In the past, however, honey bees were transported from inadequate forage to better forage, especially to woodland areas. Old records reveal that, since time immemorial, farmers have transported hives from lower-lying areas, where meadows had been mown, to mountain forage with late vegetation. They made special carts for their transport in the flatlands and used oxen or horses to carry hives to more distant destinations. Transport was organised by beekeepers mostly to take advantage of the rich and broad fields of buckwheat in the surroundings of Ljubljana, Škofja Loka and Ptuj. Buckwheat was sown after wheat had been harvested, and bloomed in the second half of August. If the weather was good, the bees were able to collect first-rate, plentiful winter food supplies and, due to the continuing nectar flow, queens continued to lay. This meant that the bees were well provisioned when they went into hibernation.
PREDICTING HONEYDEW FLOW
Today, beekeepers mostly transport their bees to forest forage. Fir and spruce trees produce honeydew more or less regularly each year, yet in each place differently. A well-organised, computer–based service for predicting the appearance of honeydew on forest trees provides migratory beekeepers with accurate information on the locations and intensities of the flow. Each year, several observation hives located in Slovene forests provide information on the quantities of honey collected by bees over certain time periods. On the basis of such data, beekeepers decide where and when they will take their bees to forage. They use lorries, trailers and containers, into which the hives are stacked like dominoes. Hives are leaf-type hives, which open at the back and, more than 90 years ago, they replaced our romantic “kranjič” hives.
It is interesting to note that hives such as LR or DB never really took root in Slovenia, as was the case in recent decades in neighbouring Austria. Is this due to the traditional conservativeness of Slovenian beekeepers? Nobody knows the answer to this question. The truth is, we are still as emotionally attached to bees as our ancestors, and we wish them to have dry, warm hives, protected against bad weather by strong and safe roofs. In Slovenia it is said that a bee does not perish, it dies. People admire and respect honey bees more than any other animal.
Slovene beekeepers collect 2000 tons of honey annually, which suffices for our domestic needs and makes imports unnecessary. When there is a flow from the fir and spruce trees, there is an abundance of honey and certain amounts may be exported. The honey obtained from Slovene fir or spruce trees is of the same quality as the honey collected by German beekeepers in Schwarzwald or Swiss beekeepers in the woods of the Jura. People of varying ages and professions practice beekeeping. Most of them are amateur beekeepers who keep bees as a hobby in their spare time. Their busy little friends teach them to think and observe, rejoicing with them at the large quantities of honey produced, or sharing their sadness when diseases develop in the hive.
Diseases such as Varroa, which appears to be incurable, are the main reason why interest in beekeeping is fading among the young. There are not enough beginners to replace older beekeepers. This trend is probably common to all the countries of Europe. In Slovenia efforts are being made to rejuvenate beekeeping by the forming clubs in schools, where students are introduced to beekeeping as an optional subject. If only two pupils out of the ten that attend courses and practical lessons in beekeeping became beekeepers after finishing school, the course could have been considered to be worthwhile.
Although the main purpose of beekeeping has been, and continues to be, the production of honey, other benefits enjoyed by the beekeeper are nonetheless gaining importance. In their respective societies, beekeepers feel accepted and welcomed as if in their own homes. They meet friends and colleagues who share similar ideas, exchange opinions, and plan various activities such as specialized lectures, exhibitions, anniversary celebrations, and more. All these activities enrich and refine beekeepers.
The Beekeeping Association of Slovenia was established 140 years ago, and comprises 220 local beekeeping societies. Almost every society has its own flag, which accompanies its members during merrymaking, or in moments of farewell, when paying their last respects at an open grave. Of equally venerable age is the journal “Slovenian Beekeeper”, whose interesting and detailed articles are an excellent source of information on activities in the beekeeping world.
The results of a sociological survey conducted among our members are very interesting. We have discovered that the children of beekeeping families have above-average grades in school and, after completing their studies, often hold important positions in politics, economy and culture. Many have not followed in their fathers’ footsteps and do not keep bees, but admit that their parents were their most important role models, who taught them perseverance, modesty, diligence and a love of nature and their homeland.
All this proves that beekeeping in Slovenia does not merely comprise keeping bees for their honey, but much, much more. It is a way of life.
Text & Photo: Franc Šivic