Slovenia’s own honeybee, the Carniola bee was granted conservation status in 2002.

Slovenia’s own honeybee, the Carniola bee was granted conservation status in 2002.

Features Biodiveristy Slovenia’s beekeepers lead the way

More beehives do not help the world’s wild bees — on the contrary, scientists warn of the competition that may arise. But agricultural landscapes with smaller farms and natural pastures are home to both wild pollinators and honeybees. Slovenia’s beekeepers have understood this — and now they want to show the way forward for the rest of the world.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:4, pp 4-7
Published on on January 23, 2022

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More beehives do not help the world’s wild bees — on the contrary, scientists warn of the competition that may arise. But agricultural landscapes with smaller farms and natural pastures are home to both wild pollinators and honeybees.

Slovenia’s beekeepers have understood this — and now they want to show the way forward for the rest of the world.

“The inhabitants of Slovenia really have an amazing relationship with honeybees. Indeed, their relationship with nature is special.”

So says Noa Simón Delso, a veterinary researcher and the Scientific Director of BeeLife, a Brussels-based organization that brings together Europe’s beekeepers. Simón Delso has visited most honey-producing countries in the EU, and nowhere has she encountered such a commitment to the industry and culture of honey as in Slovenia. Beekeeping is a way of life there, she says. One in ten people produces some form of honey; even the country’s prime minister has beehives on the balcony outside his office. During the country’s lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, beekeepers were counted as one of the most important occupational groups. They were thus among the few professionals who were still permitted to move freely, in order to care for their bee colonies.

“Beekeepers here in Slovenia get great respect from society,” confirms Peter Kozmus of the Slovenian Beekeepers Association.

The beekeeping culture has deep roots in Slovenia; it was there that the world’s first school for beekeepers was founded in the 18th century. Slovenia has its own special beehive, the AŽ Hive, developed by Alberti-Žnideršič (1874—1947). According to the Slovenian Beekeeper’s Association the hives are designed to fit into houses and are exposed on only one side.

Today, Slovenian beekeepers see themselves as pioneers in promoting the well-being of bees. Their work to highlight and address issues of biodiversity and reduced pesticide use extends far beyond the country’s borders.

“It’s a small country, but in terms of surface area, Slovenia produces a lot of honey. Together with Hungary and Croatia, they make the most in Europe per square kilometer,” says Noa Simón Delso.

Nevertheless, honey production in Slovenia takes place on a much smaller scale than in countries such as Spain or France, where large-scale beekeepers can have thousands of beehives. The average beekeeper in Slovenia has only 17 colonies. Peter Kozmus tells us that there are apiaries all over the country, and they serve as a monitoring system.

“If some mistakes are made in the agriculture — if a farmer uses pesticide in the wrong way — the beekeepers will immediately detect it, as soon as the bees are affected. We have our own way of keeping bees, with many beehives in one bee house, and that makes it easy to see how the bees are doing.”

Too many beehives in the cities

In the British Kew magazine’s latest review of the Earth’s biodiversity and the threats it faces, The State of the World’s Plants and Fungi Report (2020), honeybees were highlighted as a threat to wild pollinators, especially in urban environments. For example, London’s beehives have become too numerous, at the expense of wild bees. According to the authors of the report, one reason is unclear communication about biodiversity and ecosystem services. More and more people want to make an effort to help endangered pollinators and invest in beehives with nothing but good intentions — but this can have the opposite effect. The risk is that an overabundance of beehives will deplete already limited resources of pollen and nectar, so that they are not enough for both honeybees and wild bees. In London, there are many signs that there are not enough flowering plants for the city’s honeybees.

But outside the cities, wild bees and honeybees have a more equal relationship. In several studies, the Swedish researcher Lina Herbertsson of Lund University, has taken a closer look at wild pollinators in various European environments. She says that in a more diverse landscape, the effect of domestic bees on wild bees is less pronounced. Yet competition effects have been noted at a distance of about one kilometer.

“In Sweden, we usually have quite small colonies of honeybees, and the effect of such a small number of hives appears to be quite localized,” says Herbertsson. She continues:

“Interest in this topic is growing; we’ll see more research moving forward. But honey bees don’t seem to be a primary threat to pollinating insects. At the same time, we don’t know how beekeeping affects endangered species of pollinators; for obvious reasons, most studies are conducted on common species, which are easy to study. There’s a lot of discussion right now about how we can study the endangered species and how they are affected by honeybees, without disturbing the endangered species.”

An acute housing shortage for bees

In her research, Lina Herbertsson has looked at how wild pollinators and wild flowering plants are affected by the surrounding landscape. For example, she has investigated whether intensive farming leads to a decrease in wild bees, which in turn causes a decrease in wild plants.

“But we couldn’t see as clear a connection as we had expected. The landscape is definitely significant, but it’s not clean-cut. Sometimes the pollination of plants benefited from more agriculture, sometimes it was the other way around.”

In many parts of Europe, bees are facing an acute housing shortage as sandy areas, hay meadows and pastures are allowed to grow over or are used in other ways. Lina Herbertsson has not examined how the situation of pollinators differs between European countries, but other studies indicate that the situation of agricultural landscape birds is significantly better in countries in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe. It is reasonable to conclude that this can be assumed to apply to pollinators as well. In such instance, the reason would be that compared to Western Europe, in Eastern Europe there are larger areas where there is still a lot of natural grazing land and small-scale agriculture.

“The small-scale approach results in environments with a high degree of biodiversity. When plants and settlements are diverse, pollinators are diverse as well,” says Lina Herbertsson.

“Taking care of old hay meadows, natural pastures and similar flower-rich environments is important for both bees and plants. Otherwise, we’ll soon have an ecosystem dominated by fast-growing, nitrogen fixing plants such as nettles and meadowsweet.”

Slovenia is uniquely diverse

Perhaps the country with the greatest biodiversity is Slovenia. The country’s surface makes up less than 0.014 percent of the Earth’s total land area, and yet it is home to more than 2 percent of the planet’s terrestrial organisms. This is according to data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Overall, the research indicates that in a diverse landscape with a diversity of species, the effect of domestic bees on wild bees is less pronounced.

“With intensive agriculture, you have less insects. Rapeseed or other flowering crops that produce nectar can be sufficient for honeybees, but large fields with crops like potatoes, corn and cereals become green deserts for pollinating insects, often heavily polluted with pesticides,” says Noa Simón Delso.

In theory the future EU Common Agriculture Policy will include many options for farmers to change their cultivation methods to benefit biodiversity and pollinators, but according to Simón Delso the development is way too slow.

Pesticides are a major threat to both wild and domestic pollinators, and the limitation of their use is one of BeeLife’s most important issues.

“We voiced the need to reduce pesticide all the way back in 1993. But it wasn’t until 2013 that the EU banned the use of three neonicotinoids. Unfortunately, when decisions like these are made the beekeepers are only invited to discuss honey production.”

Striving to influence the world

Peter Kozumu is familiar with the difficulties associated with highlighting beekeepers’ issues in the EU. Yet the situation is different at the national level. Here, Slovenia’s beekeepers are a voice to be reckoned with. In yet another example of the importance the country ascribes to its beekeepers, Slovenia’s own subspecies of the honeybee, the Carniola bee (Apis mellifera carnica), was granted conservation status in 2002. It is the only protected native bee species in the EU, and the use of other honeybees is banned in the country. The Carnolian bee is well-adjusted to the Slovenian mountain landscape, with its long, cold winters and short, hot summers.

Beekeepers in Slovenia also helped push through a ban on the use of neonicotinoids, a group of pesticides used against insects in rapeseed cultivation, among other things. In 2011, after it was discovered that several bee species were dying out, the Slovenian Beekeeper’s Association lobbied the country’s agriculture minister to acknowledge that this was a consequence of the use of neonicotinoids. In the same year, Slovenia became one of the first countries in the EU to strictly restrict their use. And the result was soon evident: there was a rapid upturn in the bee colonies. The Slovenian organization then campaigned for the creation of a Global World Bee Day, which was introduced by the United Nations in 2017. It occurs on May 20. Peter Kozumu points out that the day is about showing what we can and must do to reduce threats to our pollinators. Namely, we must slow climate change and protect biodiversity. The increased interest can became a risk too, if resulting in too many hives: it is therefore important that those who are new also have the knowledge, says Peter Kozumu. Noa Simón Delso describes that there is a strong solidarity among beekeepers:

“Beekeepers know full well that they depend on others; they have a very holistic view of nature’s resources. The whole sector is very proactive.”

Yet farmers do not always see the effect of their choice of crops and cultivation methods on the diversity of species and the survival of other parts of the ecosystem. One example of this is when they choose to grow different and new types of crops instead of the original species, says Noa Simón Delso.

For instance, one can look at Europe’s rapeseed and sunflower fields, which attract large numbers of bees during their explosive flowering period. Today, many farmers in Europe choose crops with a shorter flowering period. When a plant blooms for one week instead of three, this shortens the production time. Yet of course there other consequences, she says:

“For both honeybees and other pollinators, it’s very unfortunate. A farmer who was also a beekeeper would see that.”

Photo: Richard Bartz/Wikimedia.

  • by Elin Viksten

    Freelancing science journalist with an interest in nature conservation and environmental issues, especially biodiversity. Based in Stockholm.

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