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Lithuania in the World, 2005 No 5

Jolanta Pađkevičienë

No Sting in the Tail

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 word.

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 their livelihood.
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 and venom.
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 these activities.
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 senior.
“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 come.
“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 express gratitude.
“To thank someone with honey is an honourable thing,” says Jakimavičius.
“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, his son.
“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 the bees.”
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 from abroad.
“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 him.
“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
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Tinklapio autorius Pakeitimai 2005.11.19
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