It’s always a special kind of person who takes up keeping bees
Every time I hear the word “beekeeper”, I always imagine an
elderly man with a kind expression on his face and with large
hands, accustomed to hard work, with bees crawling all over him
without the least intent of stinging. I have never seen an
angry, spiteful or drunken beekeeper.
Beekeepers are an exceptional breed of people. They come
somewhere between priests, doctors and teachers.
Certain words and their origins reflect the view of Lithuanians
towards bees and their keepers. To this day, bees are considered
symbols of industry, cleanliness and harmony. Since pagan times,
Lithuanians have retained a special reverence for bees. Bees
die, just like humans; for all other creatures we use another
Professionals and amateurs
Beekeepers observe a tradition of meeting, always in a different
part of the country, after the final removal of the honey.
Over 11,000 beekeepers across the country keep a total of over
83,000 colonies. Over 40 local beekeepers’ associations belong
to the Alliance of Beekeepers, which has a total membership of
2,090 individuals. Of these, 5 to 7 per cent have large
apiaries, with 50 to 200 colonies, which is the mainstay of
Serious professional beekeepers claim that honey is the simplest
and the cheapest product from bees. The most expensive products
are those with medicinal properties: beebread, pollen, propolis
Royal jelly, which is used to feed the queen, is especially
valuable. It is the most expensive, not only because it is known
as an elixir of youth, but also because it is the most difficult
to gather and is the least plentiful product of the hive.
From an economic point of view, specialised products such as
these are the most profitable. It includes breeding queens or
extracting bee venom. Nevertheless, only a small percentage of
beekeepers who are engaged in commercial beekeeping undertake
Places that attract me most are ones with rows of beehives set
out under apple trees in an old orchard. These hives are painted
in the three colours between which bees can differentiate,
yellow, blue and white. Boxes kept high up in trees to capture
swarms are akin to visiting cards, indicating that an amateur
beekeeper lives here. These homes generally keep little sugar:
they use it to feed the bees prior to the winter. Instead, they
use honey to sweeten their tea, coffee and puddings.
When I tried to find out the professions of the people who
tended to choose this hobby, I learned one thing: they come from
every line of work. I found artists, policemen, doctors,
politicians, construction workers, musicians, businesspeople and
theatre directors: all sorts of professionals.
There is a saying that a love of bees is passed on through the
genes. It is only natural that several generations tend to keep
an apiary together.
Father and son
Although Tautvydas Bloznelis is a builder by profession, he has
been a beekeeper for many years. He runs a company with his
father, and works for Korys Laboratorija, which produces honey
and other beekeeping products.
In a field of rape that stretches as far as the eye can see,
near Kaunas at Sitkűnai, stand 30 light blue boxes. These are
modern hives of a type that Lithuanians are not used to seeing.
The spot is one of five where the company keeps hives.
Nothing is as suitable as rape for commercial beekeeping. No
other flowering plant produces such a great quantity of honey.
Korys Laboratorija was the first in Lithuania to begin using
this type of Langstroth beehive this
year, because of its specialised packaging machinery and other
automatic equipment. The company has 127 hives in all.
“Right now, the future is being decided,” Bloznelis lays out the
company plans. “If we receive support from EU funds, we’ll
expand to 1,000 hives, and we’ll be the country’s largest. If we
don’t get funding, we’ll stop at 200 hives.”
The largest apiaries in Lithuania have about 600 hives. Korys
Laboratorija is being modernised, and is attempting to implement
other innovations as well, such as using wax-coated foundation
instead of the traditional foundation made entirely from wax.
“Even though we have used some of them five times, it is obvious
that bees don’t like synthetic material. They make worse comb on
this kind of foundation,” Bloznelis says.
He jokes how he started his career as a beekeeper at the age of
six. Half-naked, he had to help his father catch a swarm with
his bare hands.
Today, he has his own apiary 50 kilometres from Kaunas. He and
his father harvested over 1.5 tonnes of honey this year from the
64 hives they own, a normal harvest for a good year.
Since he started working for the other company, he does not come
here so often. Usually, his father Gintautas (above) is left on
his own to do most of the work.
Bees are behind my good health
Even now Gintautas refers to himself as an amateur, not a
professional. Once he managed the supply department for a Kaunas-based
company. He has been a pensioner for the last eight years. He
only returns to his flat in Kaunas for the winter. From early
spring to late autumn, he lives in his remote home in a forest
with his bees.
“I’ve felt drawn to bees since I was a child,” recalls Bloznelis
“I remember bringing back bumblebees from the fields, and making
them a nest by our barn. All day I would watch them flying out
and returning home. It was my favourite pastime.”
Many years passed before he introduced his first swarm of bees
to a real hive. His father-in-law, the owner of the smallholding
that the family still run today, found a hollow in a tree full
of bees while cutting timber in the forest. He suggested to his
son-in-law that he take the bees and put them in a hive. That
was how the first colony arrived in the Bloznelis’ apiary.
“Bees never attack me. That’s why I don’t wear special clothes.
If one happens to sting me accidentally, I don’t worry, as the
spot never swells up. I must have developed an immunity after so
many years. Actually, I have two colonies of fierce bees, so I
usually wear a veil over my face when I look at them.”
His house exudes the aroma of wax and honey. It has enamel pots
for storing honey, as well as two extractors that stand covered
against a wall. Empty honeycomb and packs of wax foundation that
look like waffles are held in old-fashioned chests, as though
they were a treasure, awaiting next year’s harvest.
Damaged and aged comb that is no longer suitable for bees is cut
up and kept in large pots to await its turn: it will be melted
down into wax. Melted wax, in the form of large round discs,
will be taken away to exchange for new foundation.
Out in the yard, under a shelter, carpenter’s tools can be seen
among the lumber and wood shavings. The father and son make all
their hives themselves.
“Here, the jobs just come one after the other. All of them are
pleasant, interesting and meaningful. The best time is when my
wife works here at weekends, and our children and grandchildren
“Still, I like it best when I’m alone with my bees. Better than
I feel in the city without a job, that’s hard. When I sit there
in Kaunas in the winter, it’s so boring. It’s better if I can
bring along some odd job to do, like cutting propolis off
frames. Then my wife gets angry with me for making a mess all
over the floor.”
During the summer, though, the work of a beekeeper is never
done. Besides harvesting the honey, every hive has to be checked
to make sure there is enough food for the larvae to feed on and
that the bees are not starving after some frames of honey have
been removed. Swarms that have been caught need tending.
Beekeepers do not disturb the comb in the brood box during the
summer. The honey is taken from supers.
The honey that is gathered in them depends on the flowers out at
the time. Once the dandelions have flowered, the dandelion honey
is removed. The honey in the lower frames, which has accumulated
all summer, is only harvested in the autumn.
“To me, honey from various different plants tastes best. The
better the honey is, the faster it crystallises. When we extract
dandelion honey in the springtime, it is so translucent that the
bottom of a full churn can be seen,” the elder Bloznelis says.
The family themselves eat a great deal of honey. But they sell
most of it at the open-air farmers’ market in Kaunas. The wife
does the selling; that’s her job every other week.
“I eat honey every day. My breakfast is always the same: a
couple of slices of white bread, some cottage cheese, a cup of
coffee, and a lot of honey.
“Honey and bees are the reason for my good health. I’m
seventy-two years old and I feel absolutely healthy, and have
enough energy to do all my work. There was a time when my joints
ached. Now I’ve even forgotten about them.
“You might always squeeze some little bee in the course of your
work, and some angry bee might sting you. But the venom is the
best medicine of all. I always have an alcohol-based solution of
propolis around. If I get a bruise or something, I rub it on,
and it goes away.”
By October, the apiary is ready for winter. The bees have been
fed sugar syrup. All the unnecessary frames are removed, and the
hive is insulated from within by packing it with small pillows.
That’s how the bees will spend their winter, until the warmth of
the spring sun brings out the first flowers rich with nectar.
Gratitude by honey
The hobbies and lifestyle of Vytautas Jakimavičius can be learnt
without hearing him say a single word: that is, by paying a
visit to his smallholding, which is surrounded by forests on the
bank of a river.
For a long time he used to be a hunter, which is clearly seen by
the trophies on the walls of his rustic log cabin, and the hides
of a wolf and boars.
Out in the yard, the several rows of beehives set out beneath a
tall sycamore tree will leave no room for doubt that this is the
home of a beekeeper.
Bees, hunting and exile are subjects that Jakimavičius can talk
about for hours on end. He has published a short book on his
life in the Altay and Yakutia regions, where he spent 15 years
when his family, all eight of them, were exiled during the early
days of the Soviet occupation.
Today, the 79-year-old pensioner, a former geography teacher,
can devote himself to two matters of importance to the family,
the return of their property and beekeeping.
Jakimavičius comes out from Vilnius, where he lives in a small
flat with his wife. His son, Liudvikas, and his daughter-in-law
accompany him, but only at weekends or during their summer
holidays. Bees arrived in this place 15 years ago, when he
bought several colonies.
“Later, I caught several swarms on my own,” he explains. “Now I
have eleven colonies. Most beekeepers say that this was a good
year, but for us, it was only average. Last year we got more
honey. Our bees gather honey from heather and meadows.
“We harvest the honey three times during the summer, the last
time at the end of August.
“The honey from meadows that we harvest in June has the most
mellow flavour and is biologically the most active. The honey
gathered in July comes mostly from lime trees. The honey we
gather the last is from heather, and has the sharpest taste.
“In one month, my wife and I eat a three-litre jar of honey.
That comes to about sixty kilograms over the year.”
Just a few years ago, he used to take his hives closer to
flowering limes or to forest meadows. However, he does not do it
any more: it doesn’t pay. It is too much trouble, and too much
stress for the bees.
Besides, when the hives are so far away, it is hard to tend to
them properly. At times, they would come and find the hives
uncovered, as if someone had been trying to help themselves.
The family do not sell their honey. They give most of it away,
as they have a lot of relatives. The honey also helps them
handle many family matters. In other words, it is a good way to
“To thank someone with honey is an honourable thing,” says
“It’s not a bottle of cognac or whisky, the typical way of
Soviet times. You’re not bringing something you bought in the
market. Instead, it’s honey that your own bees have gathered.
That’s something entirely different.
“The relationship is completely different that way. You don’t
have to feel ashamed about it, and there’s no risk of
misunderstandings. I think it’s a lovely way to say thank you.
It’s a way of keeping the old traditions of showing gratitude
and sharing your honey.”
Just an apprentice
“I’m no beekeeper, I’m just an apprentice,” states Liudvikas,
“My father always emphasises that bees are just a hobby for him,
not a profession. However, you should see how he jumps out of
the car to be the first to check his bees. He’ll stand by each
hive and listen to how each colony is humming. He doesn’t even
need to look inside, the sound alone lets him know the mood of
He says that after working all week in Vilnius as a literary
critic, writer and poet, he comes to the country for a rest, not
to work or to look for another source of income. The bees give
him great pleasure. After all, if you did not love them, you
would not be able to be with them or to look after them.
He admits that one of his greatest pleasures is being able to
give the honey that they have harvested themselves to friends
“It’s a great joy to me every time I can to make a gift of honey
to my friend Grigorijus Kanovičius, a writer who comes to visit
from Israel. Although he can’t eat honey because he is diabetic,
he says that simply smelling its sweet aroma is a delight.
I also took some honey to Paris for Ţibuntas Mikđys, an artist
living there. He said it brought back memories of the flavour of
honey from his childhood. Up to then, he had thought his taste
buds had gone bad after living abroad so long.”
When Liudvikas starts talking about the apiary, it seems as
though any minute he will break into verse. Every single colony
is different to him, each has its own character. One is very
calm; another is peaceful and friendly. However, as in most
apiaries, there is one especially fierce one.
“Although the queen changes, it is said that the nature of the
entire colony depends on her, and the following generations of
queen apparently inherit the same features. If you were to start
harvesting honey from an aggressive colony first, you’d never
get the rest done. All the other bees sense their irritability,
and also get upset.
“The angry buzzing infects the other colonies, and causes a
panic. You even get irritable yourself. We always go to get the
honey from the angry hive the last. The strange thing is,
though, that bees from that hive gather the most honey: they’re
the most productive.
“Beekeepers usually try not to keep aggressive bees; they try to
exchange them for others, as they cause a lot of problems when
harvesting the honey.”
Although Liudvikas claims that he is no beekeeper, and simply an
apprentice, he still goes out to the bees with his hands bare
and wearing a short-sleeved shirt. He does not cover his face,
he just wears a scarf around his head. The bees do not sting
“You can’t go taking honey from bees any way you want or
whenever you want. The weather has to be right. It mustn’t be
windy or just before rain, when bees tend to be irritable. You
have to be prepared for it too, yourself.”
He describes the ritual, viewing it poetically.
“I always shave, so a bee won’t get caught in the stubble. I
wash with soap, so there won’t be any sharp odours. I wear a
clean, white shirt.
“Above all, the most important thing is not to be afraid. Bees
will sense your fear and start stinging you. Don’t be afraid of
bees: trust them, that’s the most important thing. Calm and
courage are necessary with bees.”
Lithuania in the World,
2005 No 5
Photo Vytautas Đirvinskas
tel. +370 699 40751