The day the queen bees from Carniola arrived in our letter box I’m not sure who was more excited: my father or I. I remember riding home from school as fast as lightning on my bike to announce the news. Each queen was housed in its own little wooden box with a mesh breathing window and a good food supply. How many months would they have been at sea? What a voyage! I can still see my father’s face. It was beaming from ear to ear. Those queen bees were treasured members of his apiary, and they matched his quietly enthusiastic temperament completely.
I knew that Carniola was a far away place. Somewhere over the sea and on the other side of the world, but how would I have known that one day it would feature prominently in my life? As one travels from place to place in Slovenia, it is not hard to understand that bees and honey are an important industry and part of life. Bee-houses, with their colourfully painted hives, dot the countryside from north to south and east to west.
Kozelj Museum (Cebelarstvo Kozelj)
In the hilly country just SE of Ljubljana lies the small village of Smarje Sap where there is a private honey/bee museum. It was established by Anton & Vida Kozelj who share their years of collecting all things honey and bees with great enthusiasm and passion. At their museum I saw the most amazing pieces that connect with beekeeping from books, letters and journals to stamps, tools, equipment, and of course the beautiful weather worn beehive panels. They have displayed it all beautifully. They showed me everything they could find that was translated into English, and they gave me two books. So overwhelmed! In the display there is an original text book that was used in the school curriculum in the 1800s!!! Bee-keeping was a compulsory subject. How good is that! I have forgotten the quantity of honey they produce in a season but it was humungous…something like 8000kg – could be wrong there. One of their main outlets is the Ljubljana market. They have a presence there every day.
Museum of Apiculture (Cebelarski muzej) in Radovljica
Records relating to beekeeping go back to the 13th Century, but it was the development of buckwheat as a diet staple that really saw the honey industry take off from the 15th Century onwards. The museum has a collection of hives of every description – from hollowed out logs to coiled rope, cane, wooden boxes with and without woven panels, all sizes of square and rectangular boxes, carved life-sized soldiers and wooden figurines, a carved lion…unbelievable! No pictures allowed, so your imagination will have to sustain you!! Or, go visit it yourself one day J There are reconstructions of the “mechanics of a working bee-house, the extraction of honey, a sound room, and everything associated with current production. An experience for all five senses.
One of the unique features of Slovenian bee hives are the painted panels that peaked between 1820 and 1880. Religious motifs, fairy tales and folk art depicting devils, bears, hunters, workers, women all come into prominence as subject matter. Many of the folk art panels tell humerous tales, giving not-so-subtle hints about the minds of men and women! I’m not sure that the function or purpose of the panels has ever been clarified for certain – it appears the jury is still out on that one – but whether they were for ownership, discouraging bears and evil spirits, or purely for adornment (it did flourish in the Baroque period) is incidental to the unique contribution they have made to the culture of Slovenia. It’s hard to find bee-houses with original panels in the countryside. However, I have been lucky to happen on a few – more by luck than judgement. Most of the very old panels have found their way into museums where curators have identified 600 odd motifs.
Gingerbread Museum ( Lectarski Muzej)
Closely aligned with the bee museum is the gingerbread museum which keeps alive the tradition of lectarstvo, the making and decorating of a honey dough into highly decorated shapes. In the making of the dough, only chestnut honey is used, and the main spices are cinnamon and ginger. It takes 5-10 days for the dough to prove, and then 6 months for the finished, decorated product to be ready. Traditionally the hearts were given to one’s love (similar tradition to Welsh lovespoons), and they also featured in festivals throughout the year. Girls were given dolls, boys were given horses. Today they have a thriving business making souvenirs, and customised orders for weddings, business and corporate gifts. The souvenirs are not edible.