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In Slovenia, beekeeping is done in harmony with nature

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

Slovenia is the world champion of bee-keeping. The small alpine country with a population of just over two million counts more beekeepers per inhabitant than anywhere else in the world. And no other country has a deeper emotional and cultural connection to its bees than Slovenia. Apiculture in Slovenia is the opposite from commoditised beekeeping, where colonies are shipped in trucks across large distances for pollinating plantations. In Slovenia, beekeeping is done in harmony with nature.

Danijela Ambrožič is one of Slovenia’s 10’000 beekeepers. I met Danijela on her farm in the little village of Selo Pri Bledu, a short 10 minutes by bike from the tourism hotspot of Lake Bled. A few months earlier, on the occasion of the first UN World Bee Day - called for, of course, by the government of Slovenia - the Chinese Minister of Agriculture paid visit to Danijela and her husband Blas. While in China the decline of bee colonies forces farmers to employ workers for hand-pollination, the Minister saw how Slovenia is nurturing its honey bees. Here in Selo Pri Bledu, the 60’000 Carniolan honey bees of Danijela’s colony live in two beautifully coloured little wooden houses. As you would expect by the looks of those wonderful homes, their inhabitants are known for being friendly and non-aggressive. And of course they are hard-working.

What is most remarkable about bee colonies is that they only survive because each generation is working for the next one. There are six generations in one year, split up in summer bees, winter bees and drones. The work of the summer bees provides the necessary food for the drones - who eat and mate -, and the winter bees, who look after the queen and the colony during winter. It’s a cycle that repeats itself every year. Listening to Danijela while she explained all this, I could not help but think that we humans might have something to learn from the bees in terms of inter-generational cooperation.

Globally, more than 80% of our food crops exist because of pollination by insects and other animals. Yet that service by nature is under threat, as bees and other pollinators continue to disappear, as was once again confirmed by the WWF 2018 Living Planet Report. In Germany for example, a staggering 75% of all insects seem to have disappeared over the last 25 years only. While not the main cause of the decline in bee colonies, climate change and weather extremes add to the challenge. Good timing is crucial for successful egg-laying and hatching. Abnormally warm fall temperatures that suddenly drop back to below freezing can put a colony in peril. In spring, temporal mismatch between the emergence after hibernation and the availability of pollen is a particular risk for solitary bees. Research suggests that a mismatch of only three to six days impacts the productivity of bees and can even be enough to threaten the bees’ survival.

A more direct cause of the vanishing of pollinators is the increasing scarcity in wildflowers and the use of pesticides in gardens and agriculture. It’s a challenge in Slovenia too, where wildflowers become fewer and fewer due to land use change and intensive agriculture. Having wildflowers in your garden would help your local bee colony (not so much the perfect English lawn though). It’s what Danijela told me, and it’s what an expert panel recently told the UN. I listened to her and hoped that Slovenia’s apiculture in harmony with nature will become a model for many other countries to follow.

I cycled back to busy Lake Bled where the sun was just setting behind Triglav Mountain, and the Stol massif behind the village Bled was shining in a light Alpenglow,  creating a kitschy backdrop to the church and castle of Bled. Quite certainly, one or the other photo was added in that very moment to the 200’000 instagram posts with a #lakebled attached to it (many of which also include attention-grabbing tags such as #perfect_worldplaces, #bestplacestogo#travelawesome,  #thegreatoutdoors#neverstopexploring, etc etc.). Had the creators of Disneyland known about this place when they designed the fairytale theme park, they might as well have found inspiration in Lake Bled and its Pilgrimage Church on the island in the middle of the lake, instead of Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria.

I imagined how this place will look like in high season. Over the year, over two million tourists visit Bled and the Triglav National park. While Slovenia’s nature has always been as beautiful as it is today, the influx of tourists is a relatively recent phenomenon, further accelerated by popular travel rankings and social media. The number of tourists visiting Triglav National Park has become an urgent issue to manage to avoid further degradation of the delicate ecosystem. It’s with Majda Odar, the Head of Information and Education Program at Triglav National Park that I talked with about this challenge. You can read about it in next week’s tale of change.



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