Carniolan honey bee and beekeeping

Ancient tradition in Slovenia

The history of beekeeping spans millenia in the Mediterranean region, where the earliest written records found in Egypt are from 3,000 BC. Man and the Carniolan honey bee are closely interconnected in Slovenian lands for centuries, records indicate beekeeping activity already in the eighth century. Beekeeping (čebelarstvo) is exceptionally developed in Slovenia, as a technologically specialised field of conservation and research. The science of modern apiculture was pioneered by individual Slovenes, and the unique species of the Carniolan honey bee is protected by national legislation to preserve the existence of the species. The Carniolan honey bee is the autochthonous bee of Slovenia, and has become the world’s second most popular bee for the production of honey in the world, after the Italian honey bee. It is the only bee species protected by a member state of the European Union, national legislation enacted in 2002 guarantees its preservation in the Republic of Slovenia.

Beekeeping has an enduring heritage based on centuries of traditional rural activity. The bee and the art of beekeeping were a part of everyday life in Slovenian territory. Farmers kept bees in addition to other animals, for honey was the only sweetener before the introduction of sugar and beeswax was essential for candle-making. It was a common pursuit of different members of society in the countryside; priests, teachers, as well as farmers. The attributes of the native Carniola bee, a tranquil nature, industrious, and an excellent sense of orientation, allowed beehives to be kept close to the home or in the garden.

Known as the Carniolan grey bee, “kranjska sivka” in Slovenian, it is named after the northern region of Slovenia Kranjska, or Carniola in Latin. In 1875 it was given the name Apis mellifera carnica by Pollman. A sub species of the Western European honey bee, it is called the grey bee (“sivka”), because of its brown-grey colour, and markings of light-coloured and grey hairs.

The Carniolan bee is famed for the combination of its innate qualities, amongst them are; docility, high production of honey, and the ability to defend itself successfully against insect pests. In Slovenia apiculture is a leisure pastime where one in every 250 residents keeps bees. Most beekeepers are hobbyists, forming two hundred bee societies. In 2004, there were 8,000 beekeepers, with 160,000 colonies in Slovenia. On average 12 to 20 kilos of honey comes from a beehive in one season. Many beekeepers transport their hives to pastures, and it is estimated that there are at about 2,000 mobile beehouses in the country. There are numerous kinds of honeys due to the natural extensive biodiversity and preservation of the environment by the government: honey of fir, spruce, sweet chestnut, lime, maple and wild cherry, and mountain meadow honey. Bee products for health and well-being are abundant: pollen, royal jelly, and propolis. An appealing array of products are made from bees wax and honey: honey cakes, candles, mead, honey in ceramic ware.

Historical development of beekeeping

Originally apiarists had beehives made of hollow logs, called “korita”/trough, one type opened on top and was covered by wooden boards, another type are baskets made of woven cane or straw.
In the fifteenth century a new hive box was made from sealed wooden boards, following the development of saw mills in the fourteenth century.

From the thirteenth century records of the dues to be paid for beehives are evidence of early beekeeping in Slovenia. In the work by German author Dr. Max Fastlinger 1908, “Die wirthschaftliche Bedeutung der bayrischen Kloster in der Zeit der Agilulfinger”. In 790 there is evidence of Slavic prisoners of war in records of the ruler Tassilo III of a group of the best beekeepers in the churches and cloisters of Bavaria.

In 1240, Emperor of Austria Friderick II, signed documents, accepting the Monastery of Vetrinje under his protection and: he exempted tributes for oxen, sheep, and tree trunks with bees/truncos apnum…,

Town records from the thirteenth century onwards mention not only tributes in honey and wax, also tributes in beehives. Feudal nobility took interest in beekeeping as demand grew for honey and wax; honey was the only sweetener. From wax, candles were made, especially for churches and monasteries. Honey mead was produce in large quantities. In some estates they waived some dues, to support beekeeping by their tenants, as shown in records for the parish of Javorje in 1291 and 1318.

Statistics indicate the trade of large quantities of honey and wax produced in Slovenian lands in this period. In the sixteenth century the production of honey expanded, described in Dr. F. Gestrin’s  “Trgovina slovenskega zaledja s primorskimi mesti” with the crops of buckwheat, which gave the opportunity for autumnal pasture for the bees. The planting of buckwheat was first mentioned in the first half of the fifteenth century. Honey from Slovenia was sent to all the coastal cities; to Trieste, Venice, Italy, and Dalmatia, and also to Carninthia/Koroška, the Slovenian region in southern Austria, from where it was sent on to German regions, particularly to Bavaria.

A favourable influence on the development of beekeeping was the decree in 1602 by Archduke Ferdinand after the complaint from towns of Carniola, allowing townspeople to trade with honey, wax, and waxen products, and farmers only honey and wax. The Archduke also gave individual merchants monopolistic rights to honey trade.

The first detailed account of of beekeeping in Carniola (central Slovenia) is given in the encyclopedic work of 1689 “The Glory of the Duchy of Caniola” /Die Ehre des Herzogthums Krain, by polymath Janez Vajkard Valvasor. He is the first to mention the bee hive made from wooden boards called “truga”/coffin, and the beehive house called “čebelnjak”. He mentions the custom of bringing the bees to the bee house on Palm Sunday, as it grew warmer in early Spring.

By the eighteenth century, the kranjič hive was developed in Slovenia; the wooden bee-house/ čebelnjak incorporated removable boxes that resembled a chest of drawers, thus creating individual hives. The kranjič hives have panels (panjske končnice) above the entrance of the bee-hive, which have served for a display of folk art in Slovenian bee keeping tradition.

Slovenian pioneers of modern apiculture

The pioneer of modern apiculture was Anton Janša (1734-1773) of Breznica, Slovenia. His two books were important and are still used today as references; ” Swarming ” (Abhandlung 1771), and his complete Guide to Beekeeping, “Vollstandige Lehre von der Bienenzucht” published posthumously in 1775. As an expert in the field he was the first head of newly established imperial and royal apiculture school in Vienna.

Anton Janša became world famous for his contribution to apiculture. His influence on the development of apiculture in the lands of the Austrian Empire, then the world. His two works are regarded as classical works on apiculture around the world. Janša was appointed by Imperial Decree in 1769 by the Empress Maria Theresa as the first teacher of apiculture of the first state apicultural school in the world. Added were “Instructions for Bee Masters” with the note, that they have to instruct beekeepers “according to tested fundamental principles of the first bee teacher Janša.”

This occurred due to the work of parish priest Peter Pavel Glavar (1721-1784), a pioneer farming initiator, agriculturalist, author of beekeeping publications and teacher. In 1768 the government of Vienna sent a proposal for the improvement of beekeeping in the Carrniolan provinces. Glavar gave a detailed reply to the proposal. He suggested the establishment of beekeeping schools, adoption of regulations to further the growth of this trade. He made an appeal for publication of manuals in the Slovenian language.

An influence on beekeeping were bee publications. In 1873 the first publication was the newspaper “Slovenska čebela” (Slovenian Bee) important for the promotion of the Carniola bee. During the 19th and 20th centuries many specialized bee publications were issued in Slovenia and Austria in towns of: Celje, Gorica, Klagenfurt and Ljubljana. Among the newspapers was Slovenski Čebelar (Slovenian Beekeeper) of 1898 which is still published.

A number of organisations for beekeeping were established since 1781, the first association was called the “Beekeepers’ Fraternity” with 397 members who paid fees. These were precusors of today’s leading Beekeepers’ Association of Slovenia (Čebelarska zveza Slovenije).

Experts in Europe were very interested in the Carniolan bees. In 1879 a booklet was published in German by Pollman, “The value of different bee species and their variations according to reputable beekeepers” (Wert der verschiedenen Bienenrasen und deren Variataten, bestimmt durch Urteile namhafter Bienenzuchter). He refers to the Carniolan bee by its scientific name Apis mellifica carnica and in German die krainische Biene. He discusses the opinions of contemporary experts and concludes that Baron von Rothschutz supplied the best Carniolans.

Carniolan bee – export of beehives

With news of the gentle nature of the grey bee, it soon spread, initially in Central Europe. The end of the nineteenth century was the beginning of trade in live bees and swarms. Merchants took the bees in wagons to apiarists of Central and Western Europe.
The first to export the bee to European countries was Emil Ravenegg Rothschutz in 1866, soon followed by others. The largest exporter was Mihael Ambrožič (1846-1904) from Mojstrana whose business was worldwide; one order was sent as far as Vladivostok in eastern Russia.
From 1872 to 1904 he sent close to 40,000 beehives. Trade was successful due to the design of the beehive wooden box suitable for stacking and transportation. Jan Strgar (1881-1955) from Bitnje was the largest breeder and exporter of Carniolan bee. Between 1858 to 1918 records show export of at least 170,000 swarms.

At the end of the nineteenth century Slovenes became famous for the Carniolan bee; since 1857 over 170,000 queen bees were sent around the world. After World War I trade in bees almost ceased. With the new larger beehives, greater amounts of honey could be produced than with the small traditional beehives, and swarming was not a sought feature. After World War II there were many attempts to revitalize the queen breeding program by the key beekeepers association with large projects, but the approach of collectivization wasn’t successful.

Facing the appearance of derived breeds, a national level service for the selection of the Carniolan bee was established in 1984 within the Agricultural Institute of Slovenia (founded 1957). To ensure the quality and selection of the bee the Office for the Carnica Selection was formed in 1984 in Ljubljana, and is under the permanent control of the national Ministry of Agriculture. In 1991 the new Ministry of Agriculture was given the role of the protection of the Carnica breed. It controls the quality and selection of the queen bees. The purpose of the selection service is to preserve the autochthonous breed of bee and to increase its competitiveness compared to other breeds and commercial strains.

Legislative protection

In 2002 legislation was enacted The Animal Husbandry Act, in Article 70, that in order to protect the autochthonous Carniolan bee in the territory of the Republic of Slovenia, breeding of any other types of bees nor trade in other bee materials is permitted in the country.

The authorised breeding organisation to implement the nationally controlled breeding activities is the Beekeepers’ Association of Slovenia. Since 1992, all the queen bees have been listed and tested regularly. The breeding program has strict guidelines for queen and bee producers. Each year selected queen bees are sent to apiarists for testing; and data analysis. Each year the office gives approval to about fifteen breeders, who are the only group permitted to export their queen bees; subject to strict control guidelines. A total of more than 40,000 queens are bred and about one third are exported. The introduction of other bees is prohibited and breeders aren’t permitted to keep those which don’t have the Carniolan ecotype; in order to guarantee the purity of the species.

Under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food, professional services are conducted for: honey monitoring and prognosis to increase the honey produce per swarm and to make use of bee pastures. This area deals with cooperation for legislation and regulations of the European Union. Queen breeders now sell about 30,000 queens a year in Europe, Japan and USA.

The Museum of Apiculture in the town of Radovljica was established in 1957 by the Beekeepers’ Association.
The Museum displays collections to show the development of traditional to modern day beekeeping in Slovenia. It houses folk art unique to Slovenia, painted beehive front boards of the beehives, which emerged in the eighteenth century, the earliest dated 1758 and lasted till the the early twentieth century; producing over 50,000 painted boards. There are over 700 motifs, the older have religious motifs many with Mary as protector. The secular motifs are varied; everyday life, festivities, relationships, historic themes, professions, satire, human vices and virtues. There is an exhibition of modern beekeeping equipment, and bee products, and in the biological room there is an observation area for live bees from Spring to Autumn.

The Beekeepers’ Association has an important role in the protection of the Carniolan bee and disseminating information on beekeeping and the production of products. It has established a new web portal about beekeeping, . A bee library was opened by the Association in October 2008, specialising in professional bee publications with nearly 3,000 books. It hosted the first International Conference of Beekeeping Organisations in the European Union and Beyond  27 September 2010, Brdo pri Lukovici, in far northern Slovenia. Themes of the conference was to present the structure of the beekeepers organisations and current issues in individual countries. The Association offers educational programmes for all students at pre-school, primary and secondary schools, and hosts field trips; beekeeping camps. Apart from gaining practical knowledge and experience of beekeeping practices, the children become aware of the importance of natural and cultural heritage in our world. The Association clearly performs a vital role in promoting the knowledge and interest in apiculture.



Aleksandra Ceferin

Aleksandra Ceferin (M.A., B.A., Dip.Ed.) has introduced Slovenian language as a school subject in Australian school system and founded the Slovenian Teachers' Association of Victoria in 1976. She has extensive experience in language education: as teacher, lecturer, curriculum coordinator, course writer, language consultant and manager, VCE State Reviewer and Chief Examiner. Since 1998 she has been the President of ISSV and the manager and chief editor of its projects. Aleksandra visits Slovenian annually, establishing and maintaining contacts with Slovenia, and initiating exchanges and cooperation between organizations. In 2004 she was the recipient of the National Education Award of RS Slovenia.