The ‘Slovenian Bee’, The Importance of Honey and the construction of a ‘Slovenian identity’
To understand the extraordinary relationship between Slovenia’s beekeepers and their bees, it has to be said that Slovenia has a long history of beekeeping. Many revolutionary beekeeping techniques were invented by Slovenians. This is valuable because in our research it showed that the knowledge which survived over centuries is one of the most appreciated heirlooms for Slovenian beekeepers. The people we interviewed at the museums told us that the knowledge about beekeeping is handed down from one generation to the next. This knowledge also involves the development of an understanding of the special values and characteristics that bees show and therefore knowing how to treat bees the right way. To define the special relationship between Slovenians and their bees you must take a closer look at the bee itself first, because what you see there is quite crucial for the understanding of this relationship. The Carniolan bee, Apis mellifera carnica, is the only bee species permitted to be kept in Slovenia and it is also the domestic bee species in Slovenia. Beekeepers and scientific literature describe the Carnica as being very humble, hard-working, calm, social and therefore a very beginner-friendly bee species. When keeping bees, you quickly find out how beneficial these characteristics are. Therefore, Carniolan queen bees are highly requested all over the world. In fact, the Carniolan bee is the second-most-spread bee species in the world, only beaten by the Italian bee, Apis mellifera ligustica. In order to keep the positive characteristics, beekeepers try to avoid the mixing of bee species, as mixed bees often have disadvantages compared to pure bees. For example, a Carniolan bee mixed with an Italian bee might not be as well adapted for the winter as a pure Carniolan bee because the winters in Italy are not as strong as in Slovenia. But what really struck us was the way our interviewees talked about the bee and its characteristics, and how there seemed to be a resemblance to how they want themselves and their fellow Slovenians to be seen. For example, one of many sayings in Slovenia concerning bees is:
“Si sapis, sis apis!”
This is an old latin quote which basically means “if you want to be smart, be like a bee”. According to this quote it is not surprising that this Carniolan bee is also the “Slovenian” bee, not only because it is the only bee species in the country but also because the status of the bees is quite appreciated in Slovenian society. How the bees are treated says a lot about the people who keep them as well and talking to Slovenian beekeepers, one gets the distinct impression that they treat the bee almost like a human being and not like an animal. Many also emphasize the importance of the special social structure that bees have, which is more human-like than the social behavior of any other animal and which moves bees closer to humanity than to wildlife. There is another saying that goes:
“Bees die like humans, not like animals.” (Makarovič, 1989, p. 150.)
This creates an interesting analogy since it reflects on the life of humans in such a way that a human life seemingly consists of nothing but work. Accordingly, bees are known to be just like this – their life is all about working. They are working constantly their whole life and then they die, just like humans do. The beekeepers we talked to insist on having a very special relationship in terms of communication with their bees that is hard to understand for non-beekeepers. Through the eyes of a beekeeper, bees are always seen in a positive light due to their characteristics and also because of their way of living and working together seemlessly, which is regarded as an ideal to look up to. As Siegfried Becker puts it “the beekeeper sees his bees as a part of the family”. (Becker 1991, p. 163, translation LM) Here the concept of “anthropomorphism” seems to be worth a closer look. Stewart Elliott Guthrie takes the definition of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1977) that says anthropomorphism is the “attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things or events” (Guthrie 1997, p.51) When we transfer this definition onto our topic of Slovenian bees, this sounds familiar. As stated above, the bees are considered less as animals but more as human-like in their way of living, behaving and working. They embody specific characteristics that humans in many societies value the most – they are said to be hard working, humble, caring etc. But what does that mean for the relationship between animals and humans, in our case bees and Slovenians in particular? We argue that by accrediting their most valued human characteristics to the bees, the bees are held in a higher position than any other animal in Slovenia. Bees in Slovenia were described by the beekeepers as almost having feelings, a personality if you want, that other animals do not have and which very much resembles a human’s personality. It is the job of a beekeeper to understand the needs of the bees, and the anthropomorphic approach enables the beekeeper to develop empathy for the bees and to imagine an understanding between humans and animals. The anthropomorphism in this case is used to strenghten the relationship between humans and animals and this is shown to be at a new level of intensity in Slovenia’s beekeeping.
“Beekeeping takes some time. You have to check the bees, go to them regularly. It’s not a thing you start to do and then say: ‘Oh, I’m going to the seaside for two weeks.’ It doesn’t work like that. Yes, it’s a commitment.” (beekeeper)
In a way the secret of Slovenian beekeepers is the understanding that what they can learn from their bees is more important than what they get materially from the bees. Beekeeping as an occupation is not very beneficial as the amount of honey beekeepers get out of their beehives is normally not enough to earn a living. This is why almost all beekeepers have a regular job in addition to the beekeeping, which is mostly done as a hobby. But apart from earning money there are other purposes that honey serves in Slovenia, so let’s take a closer look at those.
“They Are the Honey Guys”
Honey is one of the trademarks of Slovenia and of course we need to find out why it is so important for its cultural heritage. A typical Slovenian breakfast, alongside bread and butter, contains honey. You may think: “So far so good, nothing special about that, it’s like a Croissant in France or a Semmel in Austria”. Moreover, honey is a typical breakfast ingredient in many countries. But in Slovenia, honey is a lot more than that. Since beekeeping in Slovenia is an occupation carrying a lot of prestige, there are many projects which aim to highlight the qualities that are connected with Slovenian honey. The projects promote locally produced honey – along with other products – to encourage people to buy local Slovenian food. One of these projects is the “Honey Breakfast”, which currently takes place in schools and kindergartens once a year, although there are ambitions to have it more often in the future. At the breakfast the children get to eat a typical Slovenian breakfast, which contains bread, butter, milk and of course honey – all from local Slovenian producers. This initiative promotes the mentality of consuming more local products rather than imported ones. But moreover, it is also supported by most ministries of the Slovenian government and hence the initiative is also meant to increase Slovenia’s economy by promoting this breakfast as a “Slovenian breakfast”, and therefore honey as a kind of a national treasure of Slovenia. This example shows exactly how incorporated this bee product is into the everyday life of Slovenians – and how different groups are involved in it. It may be something that does not seem special to Slovenians themselves but from an outside perspective you can see that honey is everywhere in this country. No matter where we went, you could buy bee products and especially honey in every tourist shop, supermarket and in all the little street shops. And at all these locations, there was another thing made quite clear: Slovenian honey is quality honey. This specific quality was also confirmed in our interviews and apparently it is because of the many forests and the clean environment that you can find in Slovenia. Besides, honey has been an integral part of many people’s everyday lives for a long time. Before sugar became popular, honey was the only sweetening substance available and it also played a major role as a household remedy that was said to cure many diseases. (Makarovič, 1989, p. 154) Therefore, there is a rich tradition of using honey for various purposes in Slovenia.
Of course, honey is also the number one souvenir for tourists. From a marketing perspective, honey is the product that is intended to represent Slovenia in the rest of the world. This means Slovenian honey as a brand is indeed something special. It is constructed as a national treasure that ensures its longlasting presence in Slovenian history and as a national representative even in the present day.
In addition to that, what is also relevant for the representation of Slovenia is the engagement of beekeepers and their representative associations in environmental questions. This once again can be linked to the close bond between beekeepers and bees because by now it is known how important bees are for environmental stability. The government of Slovenia was the driving force behind the initiation of “World Bee Day” to raise awareness for the situation of bees and to remember that they are indispensable for all life on this planet. By putting the bee and its products at the centre of attention it seems as if the bee functions as an almost national symbol of Slovenian cultural heritage on the one hand, and as a precursor for the country’s international dialogue on the other hand. The relationship between Slovenians and their bees is thought of as a kind of role model to look up to because human society, nature and animals seem to live together effortlessly in this country. As one of our interview partners summed it up:
“They are the honey guys!”
This is what people all over the world should think of Slovenians. It sounds nice and playful, but more than that it is also highly advantageous. This message is carried out to the world, which means that the connection between Slovenians, their Carniolan bee and of course their special Slovenian honey leads to a pleasant image of Slovenia and also nationalizes the tradition of beekeeping as being something truly “Slovenian”.
A “Slovenian Identity”?
In the process of “doing identity” the remembering of the beekeeping tradition and the identifying with the characteristics of the “Slovenian” bee are crucial. We argue that the representation of the bee, beekeeping and bee products in the image of Slovenia can be understood by looking at it from the perspective of Michael Billig’s concept of “banal nationalism”. A central point in this concept is the “reminding of nationhood”, but in a subtle way as he states, “this reminding is so familiar, so continual, that it is not consciously registered as reminding.” (Billig 1995, p. 8) Following Billig, the “national identity” is the way that nationhood is talked about inside the society of a country.
Nationalism is not only present and reproduced in obvious practices and objects such as the passport or the national anthem. It is reproduced much more subtly, and probably even more effectively, through everyday practices, expressions and objects, for example through the use of pronouns such as “we” and “us” or by recognizing certain habits or culinary traditions as part of a certain national identity. Honey, we argue, in Slovenia carries a specific “Slovenian” meaning, due to the existing symbolic representation of honey as a natural, sustainable, both traditional and lifestyle-related object. In the case of Slovenia, honey is also a representation of banal nationalism because it links everyday practices, marketing strategies, tradition and cultural heritage to urban and globalized lifestyles. All of these implementations are part of a “banal nationalism”, which in our case makes beekeeping and honey a specific “Slovenian” brand.
If you want to speak about a “Slovenian identity” then the importance of the beekeeping tradition, the use and selling of bee products and the incorporation of the Carniolan Bee into the everyday life that were discussed above indicate that these subjects all play an essential role in forming a “Slovenian identity”. When asked about the cultural heritage of the country, at some point in almost all of our interviews the word “proud” came up, and pride is related to everything that underlines the importance of bees for the Slovenian cultural heritage. Whether the specific knowledge about the bees, the aspect of passing beekeeping on from one generation to the next or the uniqueness of the painted beehive panels and the apiaries.
“You see that people still identify with this. They do, they’re proud of this. They do something to make some distinction.” (Curator at Slovenian Ethnographic Museum)
The tradition of Slovenian beekeeping, therefore, is something that the Slovenian government as well as individuals all over Slovenia – and not exclusively beekeepers – seek to protect and to revive. It is also something that they are clearly proud of. It is fascinating how quickly the word “proud” can be put in a nationalistic context, or in our case, fits into the theory of “banal nationalism”. Even though you might not think about it to start with, this unconscious reproduction of a certain picture of “Slovenian society” could be seen as an act of “banal nationalism”. It is worth reflecting on the way Michael Billig constructs his theory and the way our interview partners talked about the importance of beekeeping for the cultural heritage of Slovenia. Therefore, the Carniolan bee itself being the “Slovenian bee” and the practice of beekeeping as a form of living tradition are an initial part of the “Slovenian identity”. But when talking about the cultural and maybe the huge personal importance of beekeeping, the economical value of this practice keeps the enthusiasts grounded. As said before, you can never expect to get rich by beekeeping. So, in a way, all of our interview partners emphasize that beekeeping plays a significant role in the representation of Slovenia, but at the same time they look endearingly at their beekeepers but also with a bit of mockery as they know that there is more to Slovenia than just beekeeping and honey.
Becker, Siegfried (1991), Der Bienenvater. Zur kulturellen Stilisierung der Imkerei in der Industriegesellschaft. In: ders./Andreas C. Bimmer, Mensch und Tier. Kulturwissenschaftliche Aspekte einer Sozialbeziehung. Marburg: Jonas Verlag, p. 163 – 194.
Billig, Michael (1995), Banal Nationalism. London: Sage Publications.
Guthrie, Stewart Elliott (1997), Anthropomorphism: A Definition and a Theory. In: Mitchell, Robert W./ Nicholas S. Thompson/H. Lyn Miles (Hrsg.), Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes, and animals. New York: State University of New York Press, p. 50 – 58.
Kozmus, Peter/Ales Gregorc (2005), Slovenia. Small country with great beekeeping expierence. In: Bee World 86(3), p. 65-68.
Makarovič, Gorazd (1989), Der Mensch und die Biene: die Apikultur Sloweniens in der traditionellen Wirtschaft und Volkskunst. Begleitveröffentlichung zur Sonderausstellung im Österreichischen Museum für Volkskunde in Wien = Človek in čebela. Ljubljana: Selbstverlag des Slowenischen Ethnographischen Museums.
by Lisa Mentzl
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