The Bee Whisperers of Slovenia Have a Plan to Save Colonies From Climate Change
When Peter Kozmus stepped off his plane from New York at Ljubljana airport in Slovenia in 2017, he expected to quietly grab his suitcase at the baggage carousel and make his way home. Instead, when he walked into the arrival terminal, he was greeted by crowds of people cheering, applauding and waving the national flag. Kozmus is not an athlete, a celebrity, or a famous politician. He is a beekeeper.
And on that morning in 2017, he was returning home with a delegation from the United Nations (UN) headquarters, having successfully petitioned officials to declare May 20 a global day for bees. “It felt as if we were heroes,” Kozmus recalls. “It was like we were athletes returning with gold medals.”
In Slovenia, beekeeping is a way of life. In this small European nation of 2 million, 1 out of every 200 people is a beekeeper. That is four times as many as in the European Union as a whole. Honey features in many Slovenian dishes and many Slovenes use “apitherapy” (honey bee products) to treat illnesses and chronic injuries. Not even the coronavirus, which has infected over 1,400 people and killed at least 96, slowed down the country’s dedication to keeping bees. During the lockdown, the government deemed bee keepers essential workers, permitting them to travel freely to tend to their hives.
Bees are themselves essential workers in making life possible for humans. They pollinate our crops, and are responsible for one in three of every spoonfuls of food we eat. They play an essential role in balancing our ecosystems, globally. “Bees hold our ecologies together,” says Andrew Barron, a neuroethologist who studies how nervous systems generate natural behavior in animals. If they disappeared, goes an apocryphal quote often attributed to Albert Einstein, “man would only have four years of life left.”
Certain bee species are on the decline. Europe’s bumblebee populations, for instance, fell by 17% from 2000 to 2014 while in North America, the population dropped by 46%, rates scientists say constitute a mass extinction. Although colonies of honey bees are not collapsing at the same rate, they are still in decline in many parts of the world— American beekeepers reported a 37% loss in honeybee colonies just last year. There are multiple reasons for this, including rising pesticide use and the decline of wildflower cultivation, but a key factor is climate change — unpredictable seasons can impact pollen production, and higher-than-average temperatures can disrupt the bees’ ability to regulate hive temperatures.
Yet in Slovenia, bee populations are flourishing. While differing survey methods and limited data makes it difficult to compare bee populations across countries, the Slovenian Beekeepers Association reports a 2% annual increase in the number of bee colonies throughout the country. From 2007 to 2017, Slovenia saw a 57% increase in beehive numbers, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Now, as the climate crisis threatens bee populations around the world, Slovenian beekeepers see an opportunity to be more than just stewards of a beloved tradition. They want to be footsoldiers in the fight against global climate change by exporting their unique beekeeping practices and progressive legislation to the rest of the world. “This is urgent,” Kozmus says.
‘We just love bees.’
In the Julian Alps, where beekeepers tend to their apiaries—bee houses—and children pour honey on their morning breakfast, it is hard to imagine a life without bees.
It was here where Kozmus first developed an interest in beekeeping, aged nine. After a beekeeper visited his elementary school, Kozmus begged his father to buy him an apiary. He says he was the kind of kid who would sit in his room reading about bees and staying late after school to work with the beekeeping club. The community’s enthusiasm is no less intense; my email enquiries to Slovenians about beekeeping were answered instantly, with exclamation marks and smiley emoji faces. More than once, beekeepers excitedly pointed out that my name, Melissa, means “bee” in Greek. “It’s part of who we are,” Kozmus says.
Slovenian beekeeping dates to the 18th century, when Maria Theresa, the empress of the Habsburg Empire, created the first beekeeping school in the world there, appointing Anton Janša as the school’s teacher. Today, Janša is considered the pioneer of modern apiculture, and Žirovnica, his home valley, the cradle of Slovenian beekeeping. World Bee Day is celebrated on May 20 in honor of Janša’s birthday.
Even as Slovenia has changed—formerly a part of Yugoslavia, it won independence in 1991 and joined the European Union in 2004—its citizens have kept the tradition of beekeeping alive. “In Slovenia, beekeepers are the ones who take care of the bees not just to produce honey for money, but because we just love bees,” says Blaz Ambrozic, a beekeeper who inherited his apiary in the Julian Alps from his great uncle when he was 11.
The country’s beekeepers can be a powerful force. The Slovenian Beekeepers Association, formed in 1873, has 8,000 members and its activities range from organizing beekeeping classes in schools to pushing out a nationwide campaign in 2007 to promote a traditional, Slovenian honey breakfast.
Its influence became clear around a decade ago, when Slovenian beekeepers began reporting that their bees were dying off. They suspected the culprit was neonicotinoids pesticides, a class of nicotine-like insecticides. The association went to Slovenia’s Ministry of Agriculture in 2011 to urge it to take action. While the association had anecdotal evidence that neonicotinoids were killing bees, they did not have definitive proof. The Minister of Agriculture at the time, Dejan Židan, decided to trust the beekeepers’ instincts and banned the use of neonicotinoids that same year, becoming one of the first European Union (EU) countries to bring in the most stringent measures. A farmer in Slovenia found to be using neonicotinoids became subject to fines if it resulted in the death of bees.
Immediately after the ban, beekeepers reported fewer bee deaths. After seeing the positive impact of banning neonicotinoids, Slovenian beekeepers decided to share their story with the rest of Europe. The Ministry of Agriculture took Slovenia’s experience of banning neonicotinoids to the European Commission and petitioned for the institution to ban the pesticides across all EU countries. By 2013, the EU had placed a moratorium on three types of neonicotinoids pesticides—clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam—and prohibited its use in crops pollinated by honey bees. In 2018, the EU further expanded the ban to all field crops, amid growing evidence that neonicotinoids were causing bee colonies to collapse. By alerting the international community, Slovenia helped pave the way for other countries, like the United States, to ban the substance. “Slovenia was very active, as were the French beekeepers, in bringing this to everyone’s attention,” says Jeff Petis, the president of Apimondia, the International Federation of Beekeepers’ Associations.
In many other countries, politicians may not have listened to anecdotal evidence from small-scale beekeepers. But in Slovenia, they constitute an important voter demographic. “Because we have so many beekeepers, we have a lot of power,” says Kozmus, who is the chair of the beekeeping council for the Ministry of Agriculture. “Politicians don’t want to anger beekeepers because when there are elections, beekeepers are an important population.”
Slovenia’s Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food, Aleksandra Pivec, who also serves as the country’s Deputy Prime Minister says it’s important to listen to beekeepers because “the fact is that every third spoonful of the world’s food depends on pollination.” She added that bees are “ invaluable from both environmental and economic aspects.”
The way of the Slovenes
The Slovenian approach to bee-keeping draws upon ancient traditions but also highly localized practices. For example, in 2002, the government gave conservation status to the Carniolan honey bee, Slovenia’s native bee. It banned the import of other honey bee species to avoid the introduction of new diseases and funded a breeding program for the species. Today, the Carniolan honey bee is the only protected native bee species in the European Union.
Experts say other countries, including the United States, do not focus on local species, often importing bees from abroad instead. These species are less suited to their new environments, making them more susceptible to disease. With climate change, some experts say many foreign bee species are less likely to be able to adapt. “Slovenian beekeepers are smart because they’re using their own bee,” says Alexis Beaurepaire, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Bee Health. “If you look at other countries, people keep importing bees and then they wonder why their bees don’t survive. But the bees don’t know that environment and they aren’t used to it.”
Slovenia is also promoting its unique “AŽ” hive, after the intials of its creator, Anton Žnideršic. In Slovenia, 90% of carniolan honey bee colonies live in these small-scale, painted hives designed in the early 20th century. The AŽ hives, which looks more like cabinets than the stack hives popular in the U.S., allow beekeepers to monitor their bee colonies more carefully and effectively. They also protect bees from harsh winter conditions, including strong winds and cold temperatures. In the context of climate change, some experts say this model may ward off issues associated with extreme weather patterns.
By working on a smaller scale with AŽ hives, Slovenian beekeepers can spot when problems arise with their colonies, as was the case with neonicotinoids. Other countries, including the United States, have a mass industrialized approach to beekeeping, where colonies exist in much denser settings than they would in nature and are moved around larger plots of land, leading to greater varroa parasite and other disease transmission.
“In the U.S., beekeepers have thousands of hives,” says William Blomstedt, an American beekeeper living in Slovenia. “But here, people will have fewer hives—maybe a couple dozen or a hundred—but they can actually care for and monitor their bees.”
While AŽ hives are more time-consuming and challenging to scale-up, they are becoming increasingly popular with honey farmers around the world. In response to a growing global interest in Slovenian api-practices, the government created the Beekeeping Academy of Slovenia in April 2018, to educate beekeepers from around the world on Slovenia’s bee practices.
But as weather becomes increasingly unpredictable—with flowers erratically blooming and frosts unseasonably covering the landscape—Slovenian beekeepers are having to deviate from the script their ancestors left to them. “What it means to be a beekeeper is changing,” says Ambrozic, who noted that Slovenia has just had an unusually late snowfall, affecting the bees foraging process. “We need to think bigger.”
That means looking beyond Slovenia’s borders and building an international coalition. The success of the neonicotinoid campaign taught Slovenian beekeepers that they could be advocates for bees worldwide. Peter Kozmus travelled the world with a delegation to convince other countries, from the U.S. to South Korea, to support the inauguration by the United Nations of a day devoted to bees.
After three years of lobbying, the UN General Assembly unanimously proclaimed May 20 as World Bee Day in 2017. Individuals and organizations working on bee conservation now come together on that day to raise awareness about the importance of bees for our ecologies and food systems and to brainstorm ways they can collaborate across fields and borders. “We do not want World Bee Day to be a celebration because we don’t have anything to celebrate right now,” Kozmus says, noting that bee populations worldwide are plummeting. “We want to use this day as a tool to inform people that bees are important.”
Experts say that these kinds of efforts by Slovenia to foster international interest in bee conservation have been successful. “North America, generally speaking, is following suit by thinking about bees as charismatic creatures,” says Geoffrey Williams of the Bee Informed Partnership, a non-for-profit group from the University of Maryland focussed on saving honeybees. “Slowly, there is huge interest developing in preserving bees. We’re following their early steps.”
Protecting the bees has taken Kozmus around the world. But in the Kozjansko valley, he still tends to his 100 bee colonies alongside his wife and three children. Like most Slovenian apiaries, the panels on Kozmus’ apiaries are colorfully painted and tell a story. On the top wooden panel, Acacia flowers are hand drawn alongside other wild plants. “These are the plants the bees need,” he says. One row below, different bee products—such as honey and jelly—are depicted. The bottom row, Kozmus’ favorite, is filled with iconic symbols of Slovenian beekeeping: a portrait of Janša, images of student beekeeping clubs, and proudly painted letters that spell out ‘World Bee Day.’
The panels offer a reminder, he says, that the world can take action to curb global heating, ban dangerous pesticides and an end to ecological degradation. “Every person can do something for the bees,” he says.
Correction, May 19
The original version of this story misstated the categorization of the Carniolan honey bee. It is a subspecies of the western honey bee, not an individual species.