“Dependency on natural resources means depending on their availability, and this can vary significantly. Like the weather,” says beekeeper Matjaž Levičar describing the specifics of his craft. He spends most of his time in nature, watching how it changes through the year, while keeping track of the weather and climate dynamics over multi-year intervals. In a delicate symbiosis with bees he sets off for meadows and forests. “We are in a business that has to be very careful about its impact on biodiversity.”
Matjaž is president of the work group on the impact of climate change on beekeeping with the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association. He also works as a beekeeping instructor.
Matjaž Levičar has a degree in microbiology, but has been working as a beekeeper since 2005, and for 10 years also as a beekeeping instructor in Cambodia. The experience and skills he developed there now help him to prepare beekeepers for the anticipated arrival of the Asian hornet, a dangerous bee predator. Over 18 years of his activity he built his own beekeeping practice that now counts 300 beehives. Honey production is at the heart of the beekeeping craft, which requires good knowledge of weather processes and keeping abreast with climate change. If, for example, the polar cold rushes in at the end of February because of the delayed breakdown of the polar vortex, this can cause the bees’ food supply to freeze. Based on his observations and recorded yields Matjaž predicts hard times ahead. He estimates that owing to climate change beekeeping has about five to ten years left. Like many other of his colleagues he is therefore converting to other related activities, such as queen breeding and apitherapy. Breeding of purebred queens is his alternative source of income. The selection programme is designed so as to bring out the expression of specific genetic traits in bees (disease resistance, flying at lower temperatures, aptitude for nectar collection and in turn the production of honey). He carefully selects both queens and drones, which then mate in a controlled environment. There is currently only one operating controlled mating station for pure-line breeding in Slovenia, and Matjaž is one of the beekeepers who work there.
Deeply embedded in its environment, the beekeeping practice puts biodiversity at the forefront of its concerns. There are around 570 species of solitary bees and bumblebees cohabiting in nature with honeybees. When their populations are especially dense it can happen that bees collect all nectar, honeydew, and pollen, leaving nothing for other pollinators.
He works outdoors, in forests, and the rural landscape. When he looks for the right location for his bees he scours forest stands and meadows to evaluate their melliferous and pollen capacity and the potential of the area for beekeeping. Certain locations can provide for more than ten times the honey per hive than others. In addition to monitoring bee populations in a certain area they also have to make sure that the location is not in a flood or fire risk area. Also important is knowing the soil composition and water content.
Matjaž has hives across Slovenia, from Primorska to Bela Krajina and Central Slovenia. Each geographic region and climate zone has its own specific vegetation that changes through the seasons. Spruce, for example, will produce honeydew anywhere, whereas black locust will only produce nectar in Primorska, Bela Krajina, and Prekmurje, as it does not respond well to cold. But Matjaž also has to consider the honey flow period. Black locust in the Primorska region flowers 8–10 days before black locust in Prekmurje, which means that a beekeeper can benefit from both with the same hives. The location of each hive yard is therefore carefully planned. The market also dictates the choice of the source honey plant. With hives located by different nectar (honey)-producing plants he is able to offer different types of honey.
Inside his workspace are different rooms for different purposes – the extracting room, the packaging room with the warehouse, and the beeswax processing room. These processes each have to comply with hygienic standards and therefore take place in separate rooms
The key processes involve basic techniques. It all begins with bee care: therapy, feeding, and swarm prevention, which means preventing the old queen bee from starting a new colony outside the hive, as that would leave the hive without honey for a year. He dedicates 4 or 5 days a year to bee care. He feeds his bees in autumn, as necessary, usually two or three times. As he feeds them he also treats them for parasites.
He uses basic tools to prepare wooden comb frames: a staple gun, a compressor, and a drill. Bees make the wax that Matjaž melts in a wax melter, spins and sterilizes it, and finally shapes into plates with a press. To extract honey he first has to prepare comb frames, uncap them, and extract the honey in the spinning extractor. The honey is released into a jar and then into a barrel in which it rests for three days. When necessary, he skims the honey and repeats the process in a fortnight. The final step consists in bottling the honey.
Honey, pollen, production, and purebred queen bees as well as training courses and tutorials. As a member of the Beekeeping Academy Matjaž gives lectures internationally, for example in Bangladesh and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The common thread that runs through his lectures and training courses is biodiversity. In the framework of the European project School Eco Gardens he organised training courses for kindergarten, primary and high school stakeholders. Rather than a traditional fee, payment consisted in each school and kindergarten planting melliferous tree seedlings.