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Franc Šivic, Slovenia




On the south side of the Alps, between the Friuli (Italy) and Slavonia (Croatia) regions, lies a country of excellent beekeepers. This is Slovenia, one of the smallest countries in Europe, whose population can hardly match that of Bucharest or Cape Town: slightly below 2 million inhabitants. Slovenia has around 8,000 beekeepers. A brief calculation shows that the country has 4 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, there wasn't a Slovene farm that didn't keep bees alongside other domestic animals. Honey was the only sweetening agent and wax an indispensable material for making candles. Bees were kept in wooden, low  beehives, which were closely stacked together in several long rows.

These beehives are called “kranjiči" (Carniolans). A small wooden bee house was built in the sheltered part of an orchard.  So honey bee colonies were kept under one roof, protected from snow and cold in winter and sweltering heat in summer. Thanks to certain advantages, such bee houses are still very popular in Slovenia today and contribute to the cultural image of the landscape. 

Village Galleries

In the mid 18th century, a unique folk art: "the painting of beehive fronts" began to emerge in the territory of Slovenia, a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. This was a time when the painting of farm furniture and glass was widely practiced. Folk artists, inspired by the smooth wooden boards on the fronts of beehives, started to paint images on them. These can still be admired today in 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 their colorful images depicting historical and biblical events, as well as everyday village life. Because of these painted  bee hive fronts the bees were able to orient themselves more easily, and the beekeeper was able to distinguish among the beehives  better. This help him to remember which  bee colony had already swarmed.

Beekeeping Teacher

Concurring with the beginnings of beehive painting is the career of the great beekeeping teacher of Slovene origin, Anton Janša. Born in 1734 in the idyllic hamlet of Breznica near Bled, Janša helped on the farm and as a young man kept bees. He made an attempt also as a painter. His desire to continue his education led him to Vienna, where he graduated from drawing school with honors in 1769. Yet he was not destined to become a famous painter like his brothers. In that time the Austrian Empress, Maria Theresa, established a beekeeping school in Augarten.  A small wooden bee house was built in Vienna and Janša became the first beekeeping teacher in this school. The profound knowledge of the lives of bees that he brought from his home town, as well as his exceptional perceptiveness and inherent wit, helped him to gain reputation as an excellent theoretician and practitioner of beekeeping.  

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 mother flies out of the hive with the first swarm, and the young queen bee flies out with the next swarm; that bees infested with severe fall brood can be cured by being shaken into another hive and  let them starved several days. This is a method still applicable in practice, and was recommended by Janša, although people knew very little about the bacilli at the time. Who knows what else our compatriot would have achieved  before his early death at the  age of  39. He remains a shiny example not only to Slovene beekeepers, from where he derived, but also to Austrian and Viennese beekeepers, among whom he worked prolifically and died.   

The Grey 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 "Carniolan grizzly" because of the bright grey hair along the edges of its abdomen. Its basic characteristics include tameness, diligence, humbleness and excellent sense of orientation. Perchance it became so dear to people that they started to keep it in beehives close to their homes. News of the tameness 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 19th century was the beginning of lively trading with live bees and swarms, later on also with the Carniolan queens. An oblong wooden beehive known as  “kranjiči" attainable from the back or front, was designed for mounting on carts and transporting to further destinations. Until the beginning of World War I, specialised Slovene merchants exported tens of thousands of bee colonies and in many places completely superseded the autochthonous dark bee. Today, their work is being continued by honey bee queen breeders, who sell approximately 30,000 queens, mostly to the countries of Central and Western Europe, some even overseas.     

A Country of Honey  

Alongside the lively bee trading, specialised apiarian fairs were organised in some Slovene towns, where farmers brought thousands of beehives full of honey after summer pasturing, usually around 10th August. The buyers were live bee merchants, honey and mead sellers, and candlemakers, who bought hives because of their honey and wax. The bees were usually killed with sulfur, the honeycombs cut out and wax was compressed in special presses, cooked and made into candles. Most of the honey was sold in the country or exported to neighboring 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, namely 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, adorned with colorful flora 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 Acclimatized Species 

Let us return to the Carniolan grizzly, which is successfully kept in Slovenia, Austria and Croatia, as well as in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. For centuries this bee species has adapted to the climate and pasture conditions of the country. It tolerates cold, snowy winters, frequent rainy and windy summers and makes good use of disposable pastures. One of its good characteristics is discovering and collecting 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 Carniolia bee spends its winters in small cluster with a relatively modest food supply, but its development in spring is explosive, and colonies sometimes reach their peak as early as in the month of May. Such build up often takes beekeepers by surprise, and if they do not offer their bees enough space for building honeycomb and carrying honey, the swarming may soon appear. The inclination towards swarming is not a desired quality in 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 towards swarming and are thus acceptable for more demanding bee buyers around the world. In addition to selecting  colonies less inclined towards swarming, they also select  bee colonies with an inherent resistance towards Varroa mite.  

Transport of Bees 

Almost 60% of the territory of Slovenia is covered with mixed coniferous and deciduous forests, which offer more or less rich forage for bees. The most important honey-making trees are fir and spruce, followed by sweet chestnut, lime, maple and wild cherry. Bee families are fairly equally distributed throughout the country, which enables good pollination of cultivated and wild plants, and thus their transport to fruit plantations or larger crops of rape and clover is not necessary. In the past, however, honey bees were transported from inadequate forage to better forage, especially to wooden 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 flatlands, and used oxen or horses to draw hives to more distant destinations. Transports were organised by beekeepers mostly for the purpose of taking advantage of the rich and expansive fields of buckwheat in the surroundings of Ljubljana, Škofja Loka and Ptuj. Buckwheat was sown after wheat had been harvested at the end of July, and bloomed in the second half of August. If the weather was nice, the bees were able to collect first-rate and plentiful winter food supplies and, due to the introduction of nectar, honey bee queens repeatedly laid eggs in the disposable honeycomb. And so the bees awaited winter well-provided for and rejuvenated.

Foretelling of Honeydew Exudation from Trees 

Today, beekeepers mostly transport their bees to forest forage. The mellowing of fir and spruce trees occurs more or less regularly each year, yet in each place differently. A well- organised service responsible for foretelling the appearance of honeydew on forest trees provides bee transporters with accurate information on the locations and intensities of honeydew exudation. Each year, several observation hives located in Slovene forests provide information on the quantities of honey collected by bees in certain time sequences. On the basis of such data, beekeepers decide where and when they will take their bees to forage. For this purpose they make use of modern vehicles such us lorries, trailers and cases into which the AŽ hives are stacked like dominos. AŽ hives are leafy hives which open at the back and, more than hundred years ago replaced our romantic “kranjić” hives with painted front panels.

It is interesting to note that loading 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, though, that 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 die, but perishes. People admire and respect  honey bees more than any other animal. 

Amateur Beekeeping 

Slovene beekeepers make 2000 tons of honey annually, which suffices for our domestic needs and import is therefore not necessary. When fir and spruce trees are full of honeydew, there is an abundance of honey and certain quantities are even exported. The honey obtained from Slovene fir or spruce trees is not inferior in quality to 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 practise beekeeping 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 varoza, which appears to be incurable, is the main reason why the interest in beekeeping is fading among young. There are not enough young successors to fill the voids in beekeeping societies. This trend is perhaps most common in all countries of Europe. In Slovenia, efforts are being made to rejuvenate beekeeping forces by the formation of clubs in schools, where students are introduced to beekeeping as an optional subject. If only two pupils out of ten that attend courses and practical lessons in beekeeping  become beekeepers after finishing school, the course will fulfill its purpose.

Beekeeping Organisation 

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 weight. In their respective societies, beekeepers feel accepted and welcome as if in their own homes. They meet friends and colleagues sharing similar beliefs, exchange opinions, and plan various activities such as specialized lectures, exhibitions, anniversary celebrations, and many more. All these simultaneous beekeeping activities enrich and refine beekeepers. The Beekeeping Association of Slovenia was established 130 years ago and is comprised of 200 beekeeping societies. Almost every society has its own flag, which accompanies its members during merry making, or in moments of farewell, when paying their last respects at an open grave. Of equally venerable age is the "Slovenian Beekeeper" magazine, 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 highly interesting. We have discovered that the children of beekeeping families, which are mostly well-situated, have above-average grades in school and, after completing their studies, often have 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 to love nature and their homeland. 

All of the above-mentioned proves that beekeeping in Slovenia does not merely comprise keeping bees for their honey, but much, much more. It is a way of living.       


The photos: Franc Šivic