Tue, 22 September 2015

Bee Tourism in Slovenia – What’s all the Buzz About?

Have you heard of apitourism? It is the increasingly popular trend that sees tourists discover a country’s bees, the people who keep them and the way of life that surrounds these fuzzy insects. With the rise of all things eco, apitourism is an increasingly viable option for conscientious travellers. And at the centre of bee-tourism and the geographical heart of Europe, I found Slovenia. I signed up to a trip with ApiRoutes – the company that is pioneering bee-tourism with a heart (a few million of them in fact) – to see if the buzz is worth the hype.

While some people in the UK might still view bees with the vehement kind of resentment reserved for anything that might ruin a precious summer’s day, in recent years the plight of bees has caused a shift in opinions, with beehives popping up in gardens around the country. In Slovenia, though, bees have historically been the focus of a deep-rooted sustainable living culture and sense of national pride. Rightly so, because Slovenia’s breed of bees (the Carniolan) is made up of particularly good guys – I even stroked one’s furry little back on a visit to a rural beekeeper, and she just went about her business unfazed.

Learning about the myriad talents of bees isn’t just a biology lesson; it also reinvigorates your social consciousness in an unexpected way. Blaz Ambrozic, who operates a traditional beehive and learning centre in Slovenia, told me: “If a country operated like a hive, there would never have been a recession.”

Blaz went on to explain that each bee has a dedicated role in a hive, and works throughout its life to contribute to its society. They keep each other warm and fed throughout winter by stocking up on nectar during summer months and create houses in the most economical way possible (honeycombs are the earliest example of Ikea-style space saving). Similarly, beekeepers like Blaz work sustainably – only taking 20 per cent of a hive’s honey to make sure that they don’t overwork them – and economically – selling 80 per cent of honey to neighbours within their communities, cutting out the need for middlemen.

Bees work devotedly to protect and feed their queen (a thriving matriarchal system that every society needs to take a good look at) and beekeepers often inherit their beehives through lines that stretch over generations. This reinforces respect for family and tradition, with many beekeepers like Blaz’ wife Danijela still practicing the beautiful art of panel-painting on their traditional hives. Painting might replicate comic scenes from Slovenian folklore like bears running from farmers, paws laden with honey or wives taking their husbands home from the tavern in wheelbarrows.

Beekeeping can act as a genuine escape from the demanding pressures of the city

While countryside apiaries are upholding traditional values, in Slovenia’s capital city Ljubljana young people are cottoning onto the benefits of keeping hives. I met with a particularly jovial guy named Gorazd Trušnovec at his inner-city allotment who grabbed a step ladder and shepherded me up to his tree-house/bee hive, explaining that in the city it is more about protecting bees from people than it is about protecting people from bees. Here you could tangibly feel how, with the sunlight filtering through the trees, and the slow, precise work of handling the hives, beekeeping can act as a genuine escape from the demanding pressures of the city.

Working to close the distance between the urban beekeepers of the inner city and the older generations in the countryside, Slovenia’s Society of Beekeepers is focused on the potential of apitourism. The average age of beekeepers is gradually dropping as more young and unemployed people are realising the economic potential of engaging in what is an increasingly lucrative market. I met with the Cesar family in their beautiful garden in the countryside of Maribor to taste their sparkling honey mead wine. Each glass of the sparkling mead uses 40g of honey, which involves bees visiting around one million flowers to collect. While the family doesn’t yet sell their beautifully designed bottles of alcoholic nectar in the UK, there is likely a market for such precious and delicious products in our independent and organic deli stores.

In the arena of apitherapy, the use of bees in beauty and spa treatments is becoming more and more common within Slovenia. I visited the Vogrincics, an apitherapist couple also based in Maribor. Using principles similar to reflexology, Mrs Vogrincic uses honey’s viscosity to lift dead skin cells in a process that amalgamates exfoliation with waxing, leaving skin feeling unbelievably smooth. In a room next door you can sit and breath the warm, sweet air from inside the beehive through a tube, which helps to reduce symptoms of asthma. Ingesting honey in small quantities is a healthier alternative to refined sugar, and the rarer products such as royal jelly (used to feed a new queen) and propolis (a hive sealant used by bees) have been proven to boost immune systems and contain a myriad of vitamins and minerals.

While the health benefits of bee venom in treating arthritis don’t have full medical backing, the Vorincics are most enthusiastic about the abstract spiritual benefits of bees. One unusual experience that they offer is taking a nap on top of beehives. Within the warm and fragrant pine apiary chamber, it is hard not to feel soothed by the all-enveloping deep hum of activity as the fragile wings of bees beat 200 times per second beneath you.

The idea of apitourism, while it may seem niche in its focus on such small beings, is actually all-encompassing in terms of what it can offer to the thoughtful traveller. Visiting the heart of natural landscapes as well as at the heights of the city’s skyscrapers, meeting real people, sleeping and eating at home-stays, supporting local businesses are all just the by-products of spending some time with bees. Because at the heart of apitourism, and at the heart of Slovenia, is the deeply humbling reassertion of our symbiotic relationship with our natural surroundings.

ApiRoutes is currently the only tourism company offering bee-focused programmes for travellers in Slovenia. Their trips also focus on environmental sustainability in all of its forms, encouraging you to stay on renovated farms and eco-hotels rather than in faceless corporate chains.

Words by Morgan Harries

WIZZ flights from London Luton to Ljubljana start from as little as £11.49 and take approximately 2 hours 20 minutes.

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