“To be Slovenian is to be a beekeeper.”
Every year, 10,000 Slovenian beekeepers produce between 1,300 and 2,500 tons of honey. That’s a lot of sticky, sweet goodness for such a small nation. In fact, with 4 beekeepers for every 1,000 inhabitants, Slovenia boasts the highest percentage of beekeepers to the general population of any nation in Europe by far and it is one of the highest percentage of beekeeping nations in the world!
Most of Slovenia’s bee farmers work on small acreages with a lot of control. They sell their finished products directly to neighbors who come to the front door looking for it. Only twenty percent of the honey Slovenians produce ever makes it to a market of strangers. The locals understand that the honey produced in their own backyards is of the highest and the purest quality and they find endless ways to incorporate it into their daily lives.
A Precious Resource
On a bright, clear morning our Niteo Tour guide introduced us to one of these small, local farmers and her Carniolan Honeybees. We walked through a lush, green pasture, passing orchards of apples and pears, and wildflowers along the way. At the end of a gravel lane we stopped by a row of hives that were frantic with activity. Surprisingly, our hostess reached her hand into the busy hive. When she removed it, the brown and grey furry insects were crawling all over her hand, demonstrating just how gentle this Carniolan bee is. The handler bragged that this variety is not only docile, but hardworking, extremely productive, and adaptable to the extreme alpine environment. It is also a native of Slovenia and the only species of bee allowed in the country.
The Slovenes use several varieties of hives. There are stacked white boxes, huts with colorful “drawers”, and brown barrel-like hives with lids. Some of the hives are designed to be mobile, loaded on the back of trucks, so that beekeepers can move their families of bees undisturbed from the valley to the mountains and back again. The means a greater variety of honey flavors for individual producers – flavors like chestnut, flower, sage, and honeydew. On our tour, we tasted raw lime honey for the first time, sucking it right out of the waxy comb. It is an experience I won’t forget. There is really no flavor that compares.
Our host’s backyard is covered by a robust and fruitful vine of kiwi fruit that the bees undoubtedly had some role in establishing. The table under the vine is set for us with fresh bread (smeared with lime honey of course) and lemonade. While we eat and drink, the beekeeper talks easily about her life’s work and passion. She is not just a farmer, but a teacher as well, weaving a compelling narrative together that includes the history of her valley, the traditions passed through her family for generations, as well as the knowledge and experience she has gained through her own victories and failures. As we relax in the shade, sipping on lemonade sweetened with honey, I am aware that the bees have never stopped working.
Slovenia has been the driving force behind a United Nations initiative to proclaim May 20th World Bee Day.
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