24 July 2011

The Land of Bees

There are a lot of bees in Slovenia. I'm not sure about the numbers, but I can see and hear them everywhere. Kranjic hives - the ones that look like card catalogs - can be spotted on the side of the road about as often as stop signs. Most of the time, they're on wheels, pulled into a sunny spot or a corner with particular bee promise. Sometimes, they're more permanent structures, resembling barns with a single wall painted in a colorful checked pattern.
The love affair between country and insect began in the 16th century when buckwheat was first planted in Alpine regions. Bees are fans of that grain, so they swarmed places like Carniola and soon became a huge part of the land's agriculture. Beekeeping hit its peak in the 18th and 19th centuries with honey and wax galore. Nowadays, pollen and propolis are bigger moneymakers, used as elixirs and in homeopathic medicine.
Naturally, we visited the Beekeeping Museum in the very pretty town of Radovljica to learn more. It turns out that apiculture hasn't just been important to Slovenians - Slovenians have been important to apiculture. The practice of keeping bees in drawers - or kranjic hives - is a Slovene invention. The development allowed keepers to remove honeycombs without destroying the hive. Previously, bees were kept in hollowed out logs or other whole structures. So, basically, it was like switching from a piggy bank to a cash register. Open, close, cha-ching, no hammer crash necessary.
There were some amazing old tools in the museum: hives, honey presses, queen bee carriers that looked like a wicker birdcage from a doll's house. A large part of the collection centered around Anton Jansa, "the father of modern beekeeping," who had the bright idea of smoking bees out of the hives to collect their honey along with other things and became a leading bee scholar. Pages from his most famous works were displayed and the science of it all was explained a highly understandable way.
He also helped develop the Carniolan Grey honeybee, Slovenia's other big contribution to apiculture. The species is considered hearty and near-perfect for honeymaking, and about a third of the 30,000 queen bees bred in Slovenia each year are exported. Here he is painted onto a hive board.
Painting the panjske končnice (front boards) of the hives were all the rage in the mid 18th century and is considered the most popular form of Slovenian folk art. Professional artists were hired to decorate the panels, first with scenes from the Old Testament in a 'baroque folk' style. The gallery of boards at the museum was amazing. Motifs graduated from biblical to slightly profane over time. Scenes depicting bee-covered Jesuses hanging out with pipe-smoking beekeepers were popular, as were thieving bears and horned devils. The landscapes were particularly beautiful.
We'd actually spotted this hive a day earlier and took its photo excitedly. The museum stressed that the painting as a serious artform died off and if any examples can be spotted nowadays, they are simply 'kitsch.' Well, kitschiness aside, we were pretty psyched to have found this little coloring book of a place. A few originals folk panels still exist around the country, protected as historic monuments, including Anton Janša's beehive in Breznica. We haven't visited, but it looks amazing.
The museum was really pretty awesome. There were a handful of incredible hives that looked just like sculptures. Two were fashioned into churches, there was a ten foot high wooden man in the hallway, but this figure was our favorite. He stood about six feet tall and had a discreet slot in his side. Other cool displays showcased the beekeeper's calendar, some fun facts about the little striped buggers themselves and a room with a queen bee soundtrack. It was amazing to listen to them screech and bleat in a chorus that sounded like bad ambient music. I will never be able to see a bee or a beehive (omnipresent in the countryside of this continent) and not think of Slovenia again.

"A bee is like a word; it has honey and a sting." - Slovenian proverb
"Bees?!?" - Gob Bluth

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