What We Can Learn from Bees
At the end of 2017, on the initiative of Slovenia, the United Nations General Assembly declared May 20 World Bee Day. The choice of the date is related to the birth date of the Slovenian Anton Janša, who is known to be the pioneer of modern beekeeping.
As we celebrate the third World Bee Day today, we discussed bees, honey, environmental issues and life lessons with Matej Vošner, member of Rotaract klub Slovenj Gradec, Slovenia, who is, himself, a beekepeer, as well as member of the newly founded IBRF – International Bee Rotary Fellowship.
Last year, Slovenian Rotaract clubs joined for a district project Čebelje oaze (Bee Oases) to plant melliferous flowers. Its side project was Ohranimo čebele (Preserve the Bees) that you organized with the Slovenian Beekepers’ Association and the supermarket chain Tuš.
With Preserve the Bees we wanted to join the celebrations of World Bee Day, draw people’s attention to bees and how important they are for our survival. We need to know that every third bite of food we eat depends on pollinators, such as bees and others. For that reason, we reached out to the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association, New Moment advertising agency and the supermarket chain Tuš and organized a project that was well-received in Slovenia and abroad.
Our idea was to remove from the supermarket all the fruits and vegetables depending on bees and other pollinators. That is how we faced each consumer that entered the building with the cruel reality of how the world (and supermarkets) would look like without bees. The shelves were nearly empty. People were shocked and it took them a few moments to realize what is going on. We then explained them the purpose of the project and presented them seeds of honey plants.
We are very proud that the project was welcomed. It appeared in most news of the national media, so we dare say there is not a person in Slovenia who has not heard of it. The promo video that we filmed, though, went viral.
The initiative to film it came from your sister and you. How many people did it reach?
Once we removed the fruits and vegetables in question from the shelves, we installed hidden cameras around the supermarket to capture people’s genuine reactions, which were really priceless. That is how we were able to make a promo video, equipped with English subtitles, that sums up the project in one minute. At the end, it sends out a message to all to take better care of the nature and bees, as well as support local beekeepers, otherwise we will suffer from hunger in the long term.
The video premiered on Facebook and got very positive feedback. Up until now, more than 100.000 people have viewed it, and we believe numbers will go up on this World Bee Day. Due to statistical analysis and the many shares, we are noticing that there is basically not a country it hasn’t reached. It has been shared by individuals from most European countries; it reached Taiwan, Australia, Canada, the USA, Ukraine, etc. By sharing it, everyone can contribute to raising awareness of the importance of bees and their work.
On the initiative of Slovenian Rotarians, the IBRF – International Bee Rotary Fellowship was established a few months ago. Your role there is that of a project manager. Which are your tasks?
True, in the past year, D1912 has been intensively preparing what it takes to establish the IBRF, which was, a month ago, followed by the official confirmation of the Board of Directors at RI. I feel honoured to have been trusted with the position of project manager, which I took on with great responsibility. My main tasks will be coordination and organization of different projects connected with bees, as well as stepping in touch and collaborating with organizations, such as the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association.
Which are the objectives of the fellowship, what kind of activities will it offer? How was the procedure of establishing it; how many members are there at the moment and where are they from?
The vision of IBRF is to become a globally known association of Rotarians, Rotaractors, beekepers and bee-lovers who are aware of the significance of bees and are keen on helping preserve them. Since there are quite a few non-beekeepers among us, we plan to first organize an internal event where they could get to know the life of bees. I am a beekeeper myself, therefore I would like to introduce others the basic principles of beekeeping, honeybee biology; teach them how to distinguish between a drone and queen bee, etc. I am sure this will be a great start to all our following activities; perhaps we even manage to convince someone to buy a couple of hives and start beekeeping.
Some projects will take place on a national level, but we aim to connect and collaborate internationally as much as possible. That is why let me take this opportunity to invite all that care for bees and our future, to join us and get actively engaged in our activities. We will be happy to receive any kind of help!
One of the main conditions for establishing a fellowship is a minimal amount of members that have to come from different countries and districts. As far as I know, we had no issue with gaining founding members, for our idea was well-accepted abroad and many were happy to join. Among the founding members we have many current and past governors, as well as Rotarians and Rotaractors from different countries; their number is growing fast.
As you have already mentioned, you are a beekeeper yourself, so it is no surprise you are this involved. Does it run in the family?
I owe this to my grandfather, who has included me in working in the beehouse ever since I was little. I often joke that, when it comes to bees, I helped him at first, and now he helps me.
What exactly does a beekeeper do? How demanding of a hobby is it, which are the biggest challenges?
During the season (April–August), a beekeeper’s work consists of regular weekly check-ups, extraction of honey, wax-melting, raising new colonies; and later also feeding, curing, preparing colonies for wintering; catching swarms from trees. Currently, my biggest challenge is logistics – I spend a lot of time in Ljubljana which is a two hours’ ride from my home and my beehouse. That means I have to constantly adapt my work and other activities to bees.
Beekeeping is a demanding hobby, because it takes a lot of time, knowledge and patience. That is why it is recommended that a beginner beekeeper find a mentor who helps them, advises them – wrong interventions can do a hive more harm than good.
But generally, the biggest challenges of beekeeping are the drastic climate changes, when there are, especially in spring, more frequent and longer periods of rain or draught and we have to feed bees in order for them to survive. Finally, each beekeeper has to dedicate the most of their time and energy to fighting varroa (Lat. Varroa destructor), the parasite mite that puts bees’ existence in danger.
How many bee colonies do you take care of? What are the conditions for beekeeping where you do it? Do you produce products other than honey?
At home, I have a beehouse with 12 bee colonies in AZ hives. I never run out of work. The conditions in Carinthia (Drava Valley, to be precise) are very good thanks to a great biodiversity which shows in the many kinds of honey we are able to produce. If the weather is nice, the bees collect flower honey first; then, acacia, lime tree, chestnut start to bloom; and in the end, fir and spruce tree. Since a few years, I have also been harvesting pollen, which contains many nutrients. We use beeswax for making creams.
Why are bees important for the environment and us, humans? Which are the benefits of their products and how do you respond to critiques, such as those of the vegan community, that say beekeeping equals robbing and exploting bees – one of the reasons they do not eat honey, for example.
As I have mentioned before – every third bite of food we eat depends on bees and other pollinators. A study of FAO (the UN Food and Agriculture Organizations) shows that by pollinating fruit trees and vegetables, they create a profit of 22 billion Euros; and that of 100 billion on a global level. I believe these numbers are enough to prove how much we depend on them. We showed what that means in practice with our project Preserve the Bees, when shelves with fruits and vegetables remained empty.
Honey is the first natural sweetener, appropriate for diabetics; pollen is used as food supplement that boosts the immune system; same goes for royal jelly and propolis. Apitherapy has become popular in the past years; its beginnings go all the way back to ancient civilizations.
There could be some truth to their argument. Nevertheless, I must emphasize that one of the basic rules of beekeeping is to only take the surplus of what they produce, so only as much as they can miss. In other words, a beekeeper must never let their bees lack food for themselves.
What brings you the most joy when it comes to beekeeping? Why is it so popular and widespread in Slovenia?
Working with bees brings me peace, I take time and do not rush, so that I can enjoy the sweet scent of honey, wax, pollen and propolis coming out of the hive; create new colonies, raise a young queen bee, and, of course, open a hive full with honey.
It is no coincidence that the IBRF was founded in Slovenia. We have more than 10.000 beekeepers and are at the top of EU with the number of beekeepers per 1000 inhabitants. The main reason for its popularity, however, is the long tradition of beekeeping in our country and the legacy that is handed over from generation to generation. I hope it remains that way.
The Carniolan honeybee, a Slovenian native, is highly appreciated all around the word. What makes it so special? What is your attitude towards bees?
The Carniolan honeybee (lat.Apis Mellifera Carnica) is native to the Balkan Peninsula, but due to historical reasons, its original homeland is said to be the Upper Carniola region in Slovenia. After the Italian bee, it is the second most widespread subspecies of bee in the world. What makes it special are its morphological characteristics (tranquility, low use of winter food, fast spring evolution; they are forest pasture-oriented, etc.) which makes it very popular among beekeepers abroad, where many Slovenian beekeepers export bee colonies and send out Carniolan honeybee queen bees.
My attitude towards bees is based on respect for their diligence, precision and organisation. Even if there can be up to 80.000 bees and a few thousand drones in a bee colony, it all depends on a good and healthy queen bee. If she is healthy and fertile, the development of the colony is as harmonious and synchronised as the best orchestra in the world. But if the queen bee is harmed or infertile, the colony as a whole senses it and makes sure they have a new, young and healthy queen bee in about three weeks. That is how a colony assures its own existence.
I wish people and nations would take the example of bee colonies that appear as a harmonious whole. A nation, too, should acknowledge individuals who are just and driven by common sense (queen bees), that they would support; and as nations, we should be able to stick together in tough times. Mutatis mutandis, each nation should respond to any kind of deviation from moral values, fairness and justice. Bees can teach us much more than we think.
In the past years, we have heard a lot about the extinction of bees. What can we do to prevent it?
Recently, we have witnessed climate change; natural disasters occur more frequently; draughts; there is no real winter anymore. When we add phytopharmaceuticals, diseases and parasites (especially varroa), we realize that bees would hardly survive without the help of beekeepers. Every change in the environment affects them negatively, which shows in annual winter losses of parts of bee colonies.
We can help bees and beekeepers by taking care of the environment, planting melliferous flowers and buying bee products off local beekeepers which helps them continue their work.
What is your message to Rotaractors on World Bee Day?
Each of us and all together, we must change our attitude towards nature as soon as possible. We are not supposed to underestimate it, exploit it, and interfere with it as we please. We will have to learn to live with it, even if it takes giving up a (luxurious) material good. Let’s take the diligence of bees and the harmony in the hive as an example. Naj medi! (Let it bloom!)
Follow the International Bee Rotary Fellowship here.
Photo credits: Matej Vošner; IBRF