‘Beekeeping is the poetry of agriculture’ – Old Slovenian saying.
The first indication I had of the importance of bees in Slovenia was a sign advertising a small photography exhibition in the capital. Called ‘Bee in Ljubljana’ the exhibition featured the works of Slovenian photojournalist Luka Dakskobler. Printed on glossy A2-size paper in landscape format were some amazing close-up photographs of bees, captured in mid-flight or hovering close to a source of nectar. But the images that really caught my interest were those of ordinary Slovenians tending beehives in their back yards or on the rooftops of city apartment buildings. These photos suggested beekeeping was a relatively widespread and culturally important activity in Slovenia.
According to an information plaque at the exhibition, the Ljubljana municipality area alone had 350 registered beekeepers looking after 4,500 families of bees. In Slovenia as a whole there are over 560 different species of wild bees visiting a wide variety of flowers.
The Carniolan Association for Prudent Beekeeping was established in Ljublijana in 1873 and marked the beginning of a formal organisation for Slovenian beekeepers. Today it’s known as the Slovenian Beekeepers Association. In December 2017 the United Nations declared 20 May 2018 the very first World Bee Day, an initiative of the Republic of Slovenia and the reason behind the photographic exhibition.
A few days later while walking through the botanic gardens, not far from where I was staying, there were several information plaques located amongst the plants, each of them describing various facts about bees. After reading them I learned that bee habitats are vital for the pollination of plants and more generally for global food production, one third of which relies on pollination. The plaques also indicated that bee habitats are increasingly under threat from pesticides, fertilisers and over development of land.
On the edge of the gardens, a wooden structure, the size of a small garden shed, housed a live bee colony. From behind a protective glass panel, I could see the bees entering the hive and busily criss-crossing the honeycomb structure they had so meticulously constructed inside. It was fascinating to watch them at work – each one doing something different in a very purposeful way, yet at the same time working as an integral part of a much larger population.
At a different location, walking through Tivoli Park, I came across a long line of white beehives. They were all active, without any kind of protective barrier and seemed no more out of place than anything else in the park. It was common to see beehives in the countryside too, often tended by local farmers.
Clearly beekeeping was a significant activity in Slovenia and it wasn’t long before I discovered in the town of Radovljica, not far from Bled, a museum dedicated to bees. After arriving back in Ljubljana from my sojourn in the Bohinj region, I made a day trip to Radovljica to investigate.
The Museum of Apiculture is located on the top floor of an old baroque mansion in the centre of town. Each exhibit is thoughtfully explained and tells the long and much-loved story of beekeeping in Slovenia. The country’s most famous bee person and founder of modern apiculture was Anton Jansa, a Slovenian from the town of Breznica in the country’s mountainous north. He was born in 1734 and despite his considerable talents as an artist, dedicated his life to beekeeping and in the process contributed much to its development as an industry.
An entire room of the museum was dedicated to a unique piece of Slovenian culture: a large collection of decorative folk art panels that appeared on beehives between the mid-18th century, when Baroque art was flourishing, and the beginning of the 19th century. Each wooden panel formed the front end of the beehive and the bees would enter through a narrow slit in the base. The panels were hand-painted with various decorative scenes, some of them with religious themes or based on depictions of everyday life at the time. I imagined the artists who painted these panels were inspired not just by the aesthetic enhancement of their hives, but as a way of making their hives unique and therefore easier for their bees to find.
The museum too had an active beehive. It was next to one of the large windows with a view onto the street below. The bees could enter the building via a hole in the window and pass through a glass tube directly into the sealed wooden structure that formed their home. Once again, I could observe the bees at work on their honeycomb behind the protection of a glass panel.
Just down the road was another museum, dedicated to the hand-made production of traditional gingerbread. It was located below ground, underneath a shop. In many ways it was a fitting place to visit because one of the main ingredients of gingerbread is honey. The factory was run by two women, both dressed in traditional aprons, busily kneading the dough and decorating the biscuits with rich red and white icing. I was given a sample of gingerbread to try, warm and fresh from the oven. I needed no encouragement to purchase a few extra samples to take with me back to Ljubljana.