For a small country—roughly the size of New Jersey—Slovenia still generates a lot of buzz. Not the breaking news kind of buzz, though Slovenia’s love of bees is definitely noteworthy. The International Federation of Beekeepers’ Association has deemed Slovenia Europe’s “heart and soul of beekeeping.” This is not surprising considering that out of a population of 2 million there are currently 10,000 beekeepers in Slovenia.
One of those beekeepers is Dr. Janko Bozic, a professor who teaches classes on animal behavior and beekeeping at the University of Ljubljana. I met Janko (pronounced Yanko) in the botanical gardens in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, where he was tending to beehives which were part of a university architecture project. The university students devised the bee house, which is more like a bee mansion, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows, to allow visitors to get a closer look and a gain a deeper understanding of bees and beekeeping. The structure was spanking new, having been completed only a week before I arrived.
Janko has been beekeeping for almost as long as he can remember. In primary school Janko participated in a beekeeping club, but had no ambitions of becoming a professional beekeeper back then. His father, though, had other ideas and brought a beehive home for Janko after telling Janko’s teacher it was his son’s greatest wish to keep bees. Janko went along with his father’s plan and the rest is history. To this day, many schools in Slovenia still have beekeeping clubs, since beekeeping is a long standing and much cherished tradition there. According to historical accounts beekeeping was practiced by the Slavic immigrants in the 6th century. When the Austrian Empress Maria Teresa established a beekeeping school in Vienna in the 18th century, Slovenian Anton Jansa (1734-1773) was its first teacher. After his death, Maria Theresa issued a decree requiring all teachers of apiculture (the study of bees) to use his books and Jansa is still considered the founder of modern apiculture. Today, Slovenian beekeepers produce a wide range of honeys, including Janko’s favorite, chestnut honey, which has a relatively bitter taste and is believed to have healing properties.
The bees ducking in and out of Janko’s hives are Carniolan honey bees which are known for their gentle nature and ability to adjust population size to nectar availability. Carniolan bees are native to Slovenia, southern Austria and parts of the Balkans, and are the second most popular among beekeepers after the Italian bee. Although the bees are widespread, Slovenians have developed a unique type of hive called “AZ hives.” The AZ hive prevents the need for heavy lifting because it allows beekeepers access from a rear door. This makes an inspection of the hive much less intrusive for the bees and easier for the beekeepers because they can stand or sit while observing the hive.
Bees are so revered in Slovenia that the Slovenian government is currently working to have the United Nations declare May 20th, Jansa’s birthday, as World Bee Day, in the hopes of raising international awareness about the crucial role honey bees play in human livelihood. This is a timely mission, considering the clear evidence of declines in wild and domesticated bee populations. Multiple factors have been proposed to explain the decline such as pesticide use in agriculture, the emergence of new diseases, and stress caused by climate change. In fact, the reason for Janko’s visit to the hives that day was to try to address one of the major global threats to bee populations. While we were talking, Janko was preparing formic acid evaporators to protect the bees from Varroa mites, an invasive species which is one of the biggest challenges beekeepers face in Europe and North America. Janko says he is not necessarily worried about the survival of bees themselves, but the future of pollination is less certain. Current industrial agriculture practices pose a real challenge for bees to find food. For example, in monocultures, or fields that only have a single crop, everything blooms at once, so bees that rely on that field for sustenance have nothing to eat for the rest of the year. According to Janko, in many fields in America bees are brought for short periods of time and then moved because they cannot survive on the crops in one field alone.
Janko is particularly interested in the social interactions of bees. Bee communities function based on relatively simple principles. Swarms of bees have no central entity which gathers information and commands the collective, rather their decisions are based on countless interactions between individuals in order to come up with a unanimous final agreement. Janko studies bees not just to ensure their survival but also because he believes humans have a lot to learn from these cooperative critters.