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 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 slowed down the country’s dedication to keeping bees, reports Time.
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 should all be watching, listening and learning.