As Busy as a Carniolan Bee
By Awake! writer in Slovenia
BEES are famous for being industrious. One variety, though, stands out in that respect—the Carniolan bee. * This honeybee is named after the district of Carniola, in what is now western Slovenia. Originally, this bee could be found only throughout the Balkan Peninsula and as far north as the Carpathian Mountains. Today, however, the Carniolan bee’s popularity with beekeepers has spread its fame—as well as the bees themselves—around the globe.
What has made the Carniolan bee so popular? Besides producing an abundance of high-quality honey and being highly resistant to disease and cold weather, the Carniolan bee is gentle and nonaggressive. Although it has a tendency to swarm—a trait that can make large-scale beekeeping more difficult—this inclination has been reduced through selective breeding. But what is it about Carniolan bees that has earned them the reputation of being busier than the average bee? For one thing, they leave the hive earlier in the morning than other bees. Thus, they have time to bring home more nectar for making honey, and they can bring the nectar from a greater distance.
“A Nation of Beekeepers”
Beekeeping has a long and colorful history in Slovenia. Janez Gregori, a Slovenian biologist, goes so far as to describe his countrymen as “a nation of beekeepers.” And, in fact, Slovenians were known as expert beekeepers as far back as the eighth century C.E. From that time until the 1800’s, their beehives were made from hollow tree trunks. These hives were known in some Slovenian regions as korita, or troughs. In about the 15th century, however, with the advent of the sawmill, the old log troughs began to be replaced by hives made of boards. These were humorously referred to as truge, or coffins, because of their oblong shape.
The great demand for honey and beeswax made beekeeping so economically important that it drew the attention of the rulers of the land, who vested certain favored individuals with exclusive rights to carry on the trade. Such high-level interest is understandable because beeswax was necessary for making candles, particularly for use in churches and monasteries, and because honey was the only sweetener available at the time. In the 1500’s after buckwheat was introduced as a farm crop, opening up a new autumn food source for the bees, honey production jumped even higher. Before long, Carniola was exporting honey and beeswax in large quantities. The 17th-century Carniolan scholar Valvasor reported that by the mid-1600’s, Carniola was exporting “many thousand quintals” of honey annually to the region of Salzburg, Austria, alone. *
The Carniolan Bee’s Fame Spreads
Over the years, Carniola has made many important contributions to the science and art of beekeeping. As early as 1770, Empress Maria Theresa appointed Anton Janša, a native of Upper Carniola, to be the first instructor of beekeeping at the recently established school of beekeeping in Vienna, Austria. By the late 1800’s, bee researchers realized that Carniola’s hardy bees were suited to the needs of beekeepers in many areas. It was also during this period that the Carniolan bee received its name and began to spread around the world. In fact, by the beginning of the 20th century, Carniola was exporting “whole railway cars full of beehives,” each hive housing a family of Carniolan bees.
During the same period, the traditional wooden-board beehive acquired the name kranjič, or “Carniolan beehive.” What makes the kranjič particularly interesting is the unique art form it once bore. (See the box “Beehive Paintings,” on page 24.) Today in Slovenia more than 7,000 beekeepers care for over 160,000 beehives. In the town of Radovljica, there is even a special apicultural museum, dedicated to the history of beekeeping in Slovenia.
A Popular Symbol
Slovenians have long regarded the bee as a symbol of industriousness and practical wisdom. The first scientific society in what is now Slovenia, established in 1693, was called the Society of the Industrious, and it incorporated the bee in its emblem. Its members even called themselves the apes, meaning “bees” in Latin. Also a symbol of thriftiness to Slovenians, the bee has even found its way into the financial world. The figure of a bee can be seen on the cover of bankbooks and on the back of some Slovenian coins.
Slovenians identify with the bee because of their own reputation as a hardworking people. There is a Slovenian saying, “Watch the bees, and follow suit.” So whenever you see busy bees or taste honey—the sweet product of their labors—perhaps it will remind you of the hardworking Carniolan bees.
^ par. 3 The Carniolan bee is also known as the gray-banded bee because of the rings of fine gray hairs around its abdomen.
^ par. 7 A quintal is equal to 100 kilograms or about 220 pounds.
[Box/Pictures on page 24]
In a typical Slovenian apiary, the beehives are clustered together like drawers in a large rectangular chest, with short ends facing the front. The art of making oil paintings on the front boards of the beehives flourished from the early 1700’s until the 1900’s. Although some 3,000 examples of this unique art form have been preserved, this is only a small percentage of the beehives that were built and decorated over the years.
The designs on the boards are predominantly religious, depicting “saints” and Biblical stories. But the paintings also include portrayals of animals and of people practicing their occupations, along with various fanciful and humorous scenes. Some paintings deal with family relations. For instance, some show two demons using a grinding wheel to sharpen a slanderous woman’s tongue, while others show a wife dragging her husband home from a pub.
The beehive paintings have been praised as “the pearls of Slovenian cultural heritage,” as “a primitive encyclopedia of folk wisdom,” and as “perhaps the most authentically Slovenian art.” But the paintings were also intended to serve a functional purpose. With numerous hives in the same location, a bee could make the fatal mistake of entering the wrong beehive, only to be killed as an unwelcome intruder. The beekeepers believed that the colorful designs on the ends of the hives, each one different, helped to guide the bees back to their own hives.
“Adam and Eve”
“Joseph Sold Into Egypt”
“Jesus Arrives in Jerusalem”
A typical Slovenian apiary with traditional painted panels
All apiary photos: Z dovoljenjem upravitelja rojstne hiše pisatelja Josipa Jurčiča
[Map on page 21]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Map: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.
[Picture on page 22]
Slovenian coin bearing the image of Carniola’s famous bee
[Picture on page 23]
The Carniolan bee is known for being gentle and nonaggressive
[Picture on page 23]
[Picture on page 23]
The queen bee surrounded by young worker bees
Foto: Janez Gregori