For World Bee Day 2019, we blogged about the amazing love affair between the people of Slovenia and their bees. Time magazine recently referred to the beekeepers of Slovenia as bee whisperers, so we thought we'd revisit this theme again.
In 2017, Slovenian beekeeper Peter Kozmus returned to Ljubljana airport with a delegation from the United Nations (UN) headquarters. They had successfully petitioned officials to have May 20 declared a global day for bees. They were greeted by cheering crowds and treated like rock stars. World Bee Day raises awareness about the importance of bees to our food chain and ecologies.
Slovenians love bees, and in Slovenia beekeeping is a way of life. Their culinary recipes use honey in many dishes. Apitherapy is used to treat illness and injuries. The country has a population of 2 million people, and 1 out of every 200 is a beekeeper. This outnumbers average European Union countries by four times as many.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, which infected 1,400 people and killed at least 96, the Slovenian government considered beekeepers to be “essential workers” and allowed them to travel freely during coronavirus lockdown to tend to their bees.
Bees themselves are the true essential workers. By pollinating our crops, bees are responsible for one of every 3 bites of food we eat. One could say they balance our global ecosystems. Certain bee species, like Europe’s bumblebee populations, are in decline, having fallen 17% between 2000 and 2014. The figures are even worse for North America, where the population dropped 46%. Honeybee colonies are also in decline in some places around the world, but to a lesser degree. Pesticides, mites, fewer wildflowers and climate change are just a few of many problems they face.
This video is 2:53-minutes long and talks about how Slovenia loves bees:
Bees are thriving in Slovenia, where the Slovenian Beekeepers Association reported a 2% annual increase in bee colonies countrywide. Between 2007-2017, there was a 57% increase in their beehive numbers according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Slovenian beekeepers want to make a difference in other countries as well, as they see how the climate crisis is threatening global bee populations. They wish to export their unique beekeeping practices and consider it urgent for the rest of the world to adopt their progressive legislation for the sake of bees.
Kozmus became interested in beekeeping at nine years old. Life in the Julian Alps would be hard to imagine without bees, where a typical Slovenian breakfast starts with honey and beekeepers tend to their apiaries throughout the day.
It all began in the 18 century, when Empress Maria Theresa of the Hapsburg Empire, created the first beekeeping school in the world in Slovenia. She appointed Anton Janša to be the teacher. His home valley, Žirovnica, is the cradle of Slovenian beekeeping and he is considered the pioneer of modern apiculture. The UN appointed World Bee Day is celebrated on his birthday, May 20. Since then there have been major changes in the country. It won independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and joined the European Union in 2004. But the citizens still love bees and keep their tradition of beekeeping alive.
One beekeeper in the Julian Alps who inherited his apiary at the age of 11 from a great uncle, believes that in Slovenia beekeepers love and take care of bees, not just so they will produce honey for money.
There are 8,000 members in the Slovenian Beekeepers Association, so their vote is powerful. In 2011 the association went to Slovenia’s Ministry of Agriculture when they noticed their bees were dying and suspected neonicotinoid pesticides. Although they didn’t have definitive proof, Minister Židan trusted their instincts and banned the pesticides that year, as one of the first EU countries to establish such stringent measures. A Slovenian farmer using these pesticides would be fined if they caused bees to die.
Beekeepers reported fewer bee deaths almost immediately. Slovenia took their findings to the EU Commission and petitioned it to ban the pesticides across Europe. By 2018 the EU had banned three neonicotinoids – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam – on all field crops and evidence was growing that they caused bee colonies to collapse. Slovenia actively pursued this, along with France, so other countries like the USA would also ban the substances.
The Slovenian way of beekeeping draws on ancient traditions but also highly localized practices. In 2002 the Carniolan honeybee, Slovenia’s native bee, was granted conservation status by the government. Other honeybee species cannot be imported to avoid introducing new diseases. There is a government-funded breeding program for the species. The Carniolan honeybee is currently the only native bee species that is protected in the EU. Some experts believe Slovenians are smart to use only their own bee, adding that importing bees to any country puts bees under many stresses.
About 90% of the Carniolan honeybees live in unique hives called “AŽ” (named for its creator Anton Žnideršic). These are small scale painted hives designed in the early 20 century and they look like cabinets rather than stacked hives used in the USA. These are more time consuming and it is a challenge to scale them up, but they allow beekeepers to monitor their bees and notice changes, as well as protect bees from harsh winter weather like strong winds and cold air. Some experts believe these may help with extreme weather issues. The AŽ hive is becoming popular with honey farmers globally.
The smaller hives allow for bee care as compared to vast industrialized beekeeping. US beekeepers may have thousands of hives, and this can lead to easier disease and parasite transmission. In Slovenia, there are fewer hives, maybe a few dozen or a hundred at the most, but this allows beekeepers to monitor and care for their bees, according to William Blomstedt, an American beekeeper living in Slovenia.
Here is a 4-minute long video of the Slovenian "AZ Hive" made in the USA:
More beekeepers around the world are showing interest in Slovenian apiculture, so in April 2018 the government launched the Beekeeping Academy of Slovenia to educate people everywhere.
Slovenian beekeepers realized with their successful neonicotinoid campaign and World Bee Day campaign that they can be advocates for bees worldwide. Now they realize that they must continue to ‘think bigger’ as they deal with unpredictable weather changes on a regular basis. Ancestral knowledge will need to be adapted as flowers bloom early or late and frost covers the landscape out of season, affecting foraging patterns. Building an international coalition seems like the next step.
Kozmus reminds us that bee populations are plummeting worldwide, so World Bee Day is not a celebration since there is nothing to celebrate. It is a day to tell the world how important bees are. Slovenia’s efforts to raise consciousness about bee conservation is successful. In North America, a process is underway to portray bees as charismatic creatures, according to Geoffrey Williams of the Bee Informed Partnership, a non-profit from University of Maryland focused on saving honeybees.
At home in the Kozjansko valley, Kozmus tends to his 100 bee colonies with his wife and three children. His colorful hives are painted with Acacia flowers and other plants that bees need, honey and jelly images and a portrait of Janša and World Bee Day. These images remind him that we can take action for a better, safer world. Everyone can do something for bees.
What are you doing for bees?