There are two different forms for the verb ‘to die’ in the Slovene language. One of them, umreti, is used when referring to humans; the other, crkniti, is used for animals — all animals, that is, except for bees, which share the same form as used for human beings.
Beekeeper Erik Luznar stands in front of a mobile trailer carrying thirty-six of his hives in the Draga Valley, which winds up into the forested hills beyond the sprawling ruins of Kamen Castle near Begunje na Gorenjskem in Slovenia. Bees rush past him in their thousands, making their way as if by magic to the entrance of their respective hives just behind him.
Erik looks the antithesis of the beekeeping stereotype — young, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, with no protective suit or veil, and utterly at ease amid the cloud of bees. His father kept bees, as did his grandfather. Erik has been around bees for as long as he can remember — but he is the first professional beekeeper in the family. He has around 300 hives, producing around two tonnes of honey per year.
“They can feel the weather changing,” he tells me, pointing to the sky behind him — a storm is forecast for the afternoon, and the clouds are darkening. And just as predicted, when less than fifteen minutes later we are standing a few paces further away from the hives, the buzz from the incoming bees ratchets up audibly, as the number returning to the hives increases spectacularly, rushing in like wisps of grey cloud, just before the first drops of warm summer rain begin to spatter down through the trees.
Beekeeping is widespread and hugely popular in Slovenia — there are as many as 4,500 hives in and around the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, where urban beekeeping is enjoying quite a revival. But if beekeeping has a spiritual home, it’s the little town of Radovljica in the Sava Valley, near the confluence of the Sava Bohinjka and the Sava Dolinka, and its surroundings.
The story of modern beekeeping begins in the village of Breznica, just a few kilometres up the road from Radovljica.