May 20 is World Bee Day, a celebration proclaimed into being by the U.N. in December of 2017, thanks to the dedicated efforts of bee-loving Slovenians, who lobbied for three years for this recognition of the humble pollinators.
Beekeeping occupies a special place in Slovenia's economy as one of its oldest traditional crafts. In fact, before Slovenia became an independent country in 1918, it was considered a part of Austria and called "Carniola" after the indigenous Carniolan bee. Slovenia's beekeeping culture was the focus of my travels there, and I discovered that apiculture is a blend of art, science and philosophy.
On a sunny spring morning, I made my way on a winding country road in northern Slovenia. Cresting a hill, I spotted a colorful Hobbit-sized hut perched on a field. A young man emerged, giving me a friendly wave. I’d found my destination and date with the Honey King of Selo village, Blaz Ambrozic.
I had come to this hamlet near the Austrian border to visit Blaž’s apiary, a freestanding house of beehives. The apiary is located on a farm that has been in Blaz’s family since the 18th century and is named Kralov, which means “by the king.”
More than a thousand years ago, when prince-bishops of Brixen ruled the region, the village founder was the local king. He determined where each resident could build their homes. Blaz told me the name Kralov is ancient and has long-represented quality goods; his father produced homemade Kralov brandy, and now Blaz has branded his own product: “Kralov Med” or “Honey King.”
He gave me an hour-long demonstration on this Slovenian form of agriculture. First, he explained each of the painted wooden panels that make up the façade of the beehives tell a story. They depict scenes that range from Biblical lore to tongue-in-cheek social satire. This form of folk art is unique to Slovenia and can be traced back to the middle of the 18th century.
Blaž’s prize possession is a gigantic Winnie-the-Pooh-style hive that he transplanted from a tree trunk. He demonstrated how you can hold your hand within inches of the buzzing hive without getting stung, thanks to the peaceful nature of the indigenous Carniolan bee. Inside the hut, I safely watched through a big window as Blaž pulled out the honeycomb frames from the hive, alive with bees. I sampled different types of honey, and Blaz showed me his perennial garden, pointing out when various plants blossom, providing much-needed pollen for the bees.
While the demonstration was fascinating, it was also enlightening and inspiring to understand the bigger picture and the significance of bees to the Slovenian people.
“If the state would be as organized as one of these hives we wouldn’t have recessions,” Blaz said. “In hive each bee knows what is her job, and works for good of the whole family, not just for herself.”
“The hives are mine, the bees rent the hives and their rent is the honey,” Blaz said. “The only way I can get the rent/honey is if the bees are alive, strong and healthy. Some years are better than other and the rent is bigger--I get more honey. But the rent is never all the honey they produce, because if I took everything they would not have enough food for themselves, and they would die.”
“In the Slovenian language, our word for an animal’s death is poginiti,” explained Blaz. “We reserve the word umreti to refer to the death of only two species–humans and bees. Bees receive the same privilege as humans because they are so hard-working and important for the Slovenian people.”
At 34, Blaz is one of the youngest beekeepers in the Bled area. A forester by profession, he began beekeeping 10 years ago.
“My great uncle left me an apiary with the bees when I was 13 years old,” he said. “He died too early to teach me, and so the apiary was empty for 10 years. With the help of a mentor who has been working with bees for 40 years, I started with three hives and now I have 55.”
“My wife Danijela and I opened the apiary in 2011, and since then we have had more than 8,000 visitors, with more coming every year,” he said. “About 90 percent of our visitors are tourists. Now we both have to work so we are able to do all tours.”
“I got involved with bees when I became involved with Blaz,” said Danijela. “I first met Blaz in school. For some time we were a couple and then we went our separate ways. Ten years later, we came together again. I was 19, he was 17. I had been without a boyfriend for a while. One day my sister ran into Blaz and she asked him ‘How are you? How is life? Where is your girlfriend?’ Blaz told her he was single. I was very, very happy to hear this and two days later, I called him and we went out on a date.”
“He told me that he was a beekeeper,” Danijela continued. “At first I thought he was showing off but then I visited him at his apiary and I found out he was serious, he said to me ‘If you love me, you will also love the bees.’ I was a little scared at first but love for him won out.”
“I am now also a beekeeper,” she said.” I stand by Blaz and give him a lot of support. I run the business, I am responsible for the website, I oversee sales of honey, I run group tours.”
“If you met me 10 years ago and told me that I would be a beekeeper and teaching groups of tourists about bees, I would tell you that you must have fallen on your head!” Danijela said. “In school, I was very shy. I became confident thanks to this work.”
I asked if she worried about being stung.
“I don’t like it myself when they sting me, of course,” Danijela said. “But I know without bees there is no life.”
The Ambrozic's eight year-old son Tadej and daughter Valentina, five years of age, are old hands at beekeeping.
“Our children’s first experience with the bees was when they were each three months old,” she explained. “Because I help Blaz in the apiary, they were always there with us, watching and playing. At first we were a little scared because we didn’t know how they would respond if they got stung. When it happened, they cried a little and quickly got over it.”
Blaz is philosophical about the downside of working with bees. “If you work with bees, you are stung–but a sting is also a cure for arthritis,” he said. “If the bees didn’t sting, then everyone would be a beekeeper.”
“Most people do not know how important the bees are for our food, “Blaz said. “If man is doing something that affects nature adversely, like the use of pesticides, the dead bees are the first sign that we are doing something wrong. If we don’t have bees, we will have a lot of problems, beginning with hunger.”
In fact, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, cross-pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive. Without bees to spread seeds, many plants—including food crops—would die off.
Not surprisingly, Blaz is concerned about the global decline in the bee population. Since the late 1990s, beekeepers around the world have observed the mysterious and sudden disappearance of bees, and report unusually high rates of decline in honeybee colonies.
“The bees have been in existence since the times of the dinosaurs and have survived the Ice Age,” he continued. “In North and South America the bee population is declining more than in Slovenia, but we also have problems.
Blaz belongs to a local Bled beekeeping club that is part of the Slovenian Beekeepers Association (SBA), which was formed in 1873. He explained that SBA gives free lectures, publishes a magazine and advocates on behalf of members with the government. Of Slovenia’s 10,000 beekeepers, about 7,500 belong to SBA.
Peter Kozmus, of Pilštanj in eastern Slovenia near the Croatian border, is the leader of Slovenian Beekeeping Association’s breeding program for the Carniolan honeybee, overseeing the country’s efforts to conserve the species. Now 37, he began beekeeping when he was 14, participating in bee clubs in primary school. He now has around 50 bee colonies—as well as his PhD in the molecular characterization of the Carniolan bee population as based on mitochondrial DNA.
Kozmus was also responsible for the campaign to have the United Nations declare May 20 as World Bee Day.
“Beekeeping is the part of Slovenian tradition,” he said. “We are a nation of beekeepers. On average, there are five beekeepers for every 1,000 inhabitants—per capita, probably the country with the most beekeepers in the world.”
No one personifies Slovenia’s beekeeping tradition more than Anton Jansa, whose birth date of May 20 was chosen for World Bee Day. Born in 1734, Jansa is considered a pioneer of modern apiculture and a great expert in the field. He was educated as a painter, but was employed as a teacher of apiculture at the Habsburg court in Vienna.
Among Jansa’s many contributions to apiculture is changing the size and shape of hives to a form where they can be stacked together like blocks. His approach can still be seen at his apiary in Breznica, about 10 minutes from Blaz’s; Jansa’s site has been preserved by Slovenian beekeepers and continues to be a place of pilgrimage for those interested in apiculture.
The Slovenian government joined the Slovenian Beekeepers Association in the World Bee Day campaign. In support of the initiative, Dejan Židan, deputy prime minister and minister of agriculture, forestry and food, declared that Slovenia “recognizes the importance of bees and beekeeping for ensuring food security, as well as preserving the entire ecosystem and natural biodiversity.”
“Bees have important social symbolism in Slovenia,” said Tita Porenta, curator of the Museum of Apiculture in Radovljica, a short drive from both Blaz’s and Anton Jansa’s apiaries. “Numerous good qualities are associated with the domestic bee. The Carniolan Grey has inspired particularly deep spiritual attitudes in the Slovenian people. This is reflected in beliefs, superstitions, symbolism, proverbs, literature and fine arts.”
In addition to exhibits on the history and culture of beekeeping, the museum features an observational beehive.
“Bee nourishment in nature is gathered by forager bees,” Tita explained. “To be successful in this task, they have developed an ability to inform one another about food sources in nature. By turning the body in a circular pattern or in a number eight pattern, buzzing and wagging the abdomen and from time to time giving away gathered food, the dancing bee informs her companions of the direction, distance, source and abundance of forage. This interaction is called the bee dance.”
Just down the street from the museum, the bee is even memorialized on the façade of a building adorned with a gorgeous Art Noveau tile mosaic depicting bees buzzing around a tree.
“The building is now owned by the municipality of Radovljica; previously it was a savings bank,” Danijela said. “They say if you’re frugal and work hard, you are working like a bee.”
I left Slovenia with new respect and affection for the energy, entrepreneurship and cooperative spirit of the honeybee, thanks to Blaz, Danijela, Tita, Peter and even Anton Jansa.