In this modern world of everyone being expected to have hyper-exaggerated opinions on anything and everything, not a day goes by without the fate of the bee (and with it the fate of ALL LIFE ON EARTH AS WE KNOW IT) being dramatically lamented. I’m certainly not going to argue the importance of the bee species, I like eating after all and bees pollinate most of the stuff we make into food. It seems that despite everyone knowing what is going to happen, we still do nothing about it except make a plethora of jokes about how much we hate wasps.
The fancy scientific name for beekeeping is apiculture, and apiculture has been practiced by humans since at least forever. Aristotle himself was a keen studier of the humble bee, although despite being the most clued-up dude of his time, he believed that bees found their young in flowers and that honey fell from the sky. Sylvia Plath took up beekeeping and went on to write a series of heart-wrenching poems about bees, the little buzzy boys that also became the centre of Leo Tolstoy’s world. Heck, Samuel L. Jackson even gave a beehive full of bees to Scarlett Johansson as a wedding present. Celebrities love bees, almost as much as Winnie the Pooh loves honey.
We’ve tried to domesticate wild bees since we could work out what to do with our hands, from a time long before the Slavs trundled their way towards Europe in the 6th century. Slovenia has often been at the forefront of this, and to say beekeeping is well-developed in Slovenia would be one heck of an understatement. In 1687 Janez Vajkard Valvasor wrote of the beekeeping technology in the area, of how bees were thriving. Today (as in these times, not literally the day that you are reading this) Slovenia has over 160,000 bee swarms, and the second highest number of beekeepers in the world (second only to Argentina, which has around 40 million more people). Apiculture has evolved plenty over the centuries, and a lot of modern apiculture comes from the studies and teachings of a Slovene chap from Breznica, named Anton Janša. As you might have guessed from the title of this chapter, this dude is considered the daddy of Euro beekeeping.
Born in 1734, Janša developed an interest in painting from a young age, and whilst this may seem to have little to do with bees one must be patient. He shared this interest, or possibly established it, along with his two brothers. Despite their illiteracy they all packed up and went off to Vienna in 1766 to enrol at the engraving school recently established by Empress Marie Theresa. Now, only one of the brothers would graduate and further their work in the art, but our buddy Anton discovered his true love during this time.
He was no stranger to bees. His family had a history of beekeeping, and his father had over 500 hives at home. Discussions about beekeeping would dominate talk at the tavern, the local farmers more interested in swarms and honey than swarms of honeys. This had fuelled Anton’s curiosity, and as there was something of a gap in apiculture knowledge in the Austrian Empire at the time, he quickly slipped into a career working with these hardworking little fellas. Maria Theresa decided to set up the first beekeeping school in Europe not long after establishing the engraving school, and in 1769 Anton Janša became its first beekeeping instructor. One year later he was appointed Imperial and Royal Beekeeper. Janša was number one in the bee world, and not many were as enamoured with the buggers as our Anton; ’amongst all God’s beings there are none so hardworking and useful to man with so little attention need for its keep as the bee’.
Janša’s duties were fairly simple, but important nonetheless. He kept the bees in the Imperial Gardens, but his main task was to travel around the land presenting his bee observations, and he had plenty of them. His experiments ended with him changing the setup of the hive to use the swarming instinct of the bees to his own advantage. He came to change the size and shape of the hive, meaning they could be stacked upon each other like blocks, a dream for organisation obsessives everywhere. The holes in the tops and bottoms also allowed for easier movement for the bees, allowing colonies to grow all year round.
He also used his experience as a painter and decorated the fronts of hives, which were previously bland and uninspiring. Janša would often paint scenes of anthropomorphic animals, and these have become popular tourist souvenirs in the modern age. He wrote two books in German during his work at the court, entitled ‘Discussion in Beekeeping’ and ‘A Full Guide to Beekeeping’. His bee lectures were famous throughout the lands, and he popularised the method of smoking bees out of their hives for the honey. He died in Vienna in 1773 of typhus, although for the purpose of story lets say that a hive of bees turned on him and entombed him in honey.
Despite the typhus-death, the rest is pretty good going for a little kid from Breznica. A fairly uninspiring town, it has the usual Plečnik architecture and green areas but not much else. He certainly wouldn’t be revered as the king of the hive (the hive of beekeeping), but his work was influential enough to be considered the only resource for those in the Austrian empire who studied apiculture following his death, and he is considered one of the fathers of European apiculture. The 19th century saw further developments in apiculture, and although the 20th century sees us push on our attempts to eradicate the bee, the art is still practiced today. Slovenia is the only country that officially protects is national bee no less, and Janša would probably be rather chuffed to know this.
Anton Janša was initially an artist who applied his talents to the practical world of conservation. He was an innovator, a man who realised the potential of blending science with folk traditions. He was to beekeeping what Newton was to gravity, although that might be pushing this a little too far. Regardless, he is considered the first great man in the history of beekeeping, which sits well with the hyperbole lamented at the top.
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