Beekeeping has been serious business in Slovenia since the 16th century, when honey was the main sweetener, and beeswax candles were an important source of illumination. Bees were kept in wooden hives traditionally stacked under a roof, and even today, these can be spotted in orchards and gardens across the country. In the mid-18th century, a folk art form emerged with beehive front panels becoming canvases for artists to depict Biblical stories, historical events, folk tales, and scenes from rural life.
My guide, Ales Fevzer, tells me that as well as helping the beekeeper distinguish between different colonies, painted hives help bees orient themselves and find their homes easily. Some motifs provide protection from witchcraft or misfortune. According to a Slovenian saying, beekeeping is “the poetry of agriculture.”
Beekeeping tourism is unique to Slovenia, as is its protected native bee species, the dusky brown-grey Carniolan honeybee, popularly known as the grey bee. The species is known for its “docility and diligence,” Ales explains, and is one of the top three species favoured by beekeepers worldwide. “Slovenia is the only EU country that has protected its indigenous bee race,” Ales tells me.
In Radovljica, a small town in northern Slovenia and the centre of bee tourism, I taste a variety of artisanal honeys made by these bees—fir, spruce, linden, maple, wild cherry, and even dandelion. Since 60 per cent of this small country is wooded, bees forage on a variety of trees. According to Ales, honey takes on a gamut of flavours and consistencies depending on what flower it comes from. Artisanal honey is usually thicker and denser than mass-produced honey because its harvesters patiently wait till bees build wax caps over the cells of their honeycombs, signalling that the honey is mature.
In Slovenia, this honey makes its way into a variety of products. Some that I see on sale in Radovljica include mouth-warming honey biscuits baked in moulds, boxes of honey chocolates shaped like bees, honey liqueur, honey wine (mead), and honey sparkling wine. In the cellar of the Lectar restaurant, I visit a workshop fragrant with the aroma of Slovenian gingerbread hearts. I watch a baker make these beauties out of honey, rye flour, pepper, cinnamon, and clove, icing them with colourful floral decorations. Heart-shaped honey cakes are traditionally purchased by lovers as gifts, iced with a name, and embellished with a mirror.
Nearby, at the gift shop in Bled Castle, Slovenia’s oldest castle and a popular tourist attraction, I encounter some unusual bee products like royal jelly, which is secreted by worker bees, and propolis, used to protect their hives from infection. Propolis is created when bees collect and enrich tree resin with secretions from their salivary glands. It is believed to have around 300 chemical components and is known for its healing powers.
In the central square of historic Radovljica, a few rooms of a baroque mansion are occupied by the Apiculture Museum. Inside, I see a tall wooden statue of a Slovenian peasant brandishing a pitchfork, almost missing the discreet opening above his hand: a hole for bees to enter. There’s also a wooden soldier and a small church, each with an opening in the back for removing the honeycomb.
The museum has 200 hand-painted panels of apiary art, dating to the 18th and 19th centuries. There are scenes of bucolic bliss and several panels that make fun of hunters, including one depicting a fox holding a knife to a man’s neck. I see scenes from the Old Testament, bears with honey on their paws running from farmers, soldiers in battle, and even bandits attacking innocent travellers.
There are 15 “honey routes” around Slovenia, where people can learn about honey gathering, the healing qualities of honey, and even experience “apitherapy”, which uses honeybee products such as honey, pollen, bee bread, propolis, royal jelly, and bee venom. Although most of the country’s 9,000 beekeepers are amateurs, they produce about 2,000 tons of honey each year, mostly for local markets. I buy two jars to take home, along with some beeswax candle figurines, and a souvenir painted panel. Every time I drizzle honey on my toast, I taste a bit of Slovenia.
Appeared in the Feb 2016 issue as “The Bee’s Knees”.
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer, blogger, and a Japanese language specialist from Chennai. In her search for a good travel story, she has snowmobiled in Lapland, walked with the lions in Zimbabwe, and flown in a microlight over the Victoria Falls.