Want to be a better beekeeper and have a lot of fun in the process? Try exploring new scenery. When I was rather young, I worked for about a dozen beekeeepers – in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Saskatchewan, Florida, Montana, Wisconsin. Even though I grew up on a bee farm, working for others was an eye-opener. Learning how others adapted to their environments gave me ideas which I later borrowed. It surprised me that not every honey crop came from goldenrod, boneset, and aster in the fall and it was enlightening to see that bees could be kept in something other than single deeps with shallows as honey supers. The rest of the world, I discovered, was not Appalachian Pennsylvania.
I know that the old adage, “All beekeeping is local,” is broadly true. But it’s also true that “If you stop learning, you start dying.” Local is important, but fresh ideas are, too. Although Reverend Langstroth invented his moveable-frame hive in Philadelphia, I’ve seen equipment modelled on Langstroth boxes in South America, Asia, and Europe. Good ideas are portable.
I’ve been in Europe for the past few days. It’s just a quick trip, a change of scenery, a visit to extended family. This is not a beekeeping holiday. Most years that I’ve been here, I’ve met beekeepers and bees. It might still happen, though it’s not planned. But even without seeing many bees, a change of culture, language, and climate is like hitting a reset button.
I’m in Hungary. Our base is a lovely university city (Szeged), about two hours south of Budapest. The city is just a few kilometres from Romania and Serbia, so it is a bit of an international crossroads, down here in Hungary’s far south. It is the hottest and sunniest place in the country. Agriculture is a big part of the economy and paprika is a well-known commodity. In fact, a Nobel Prize was awarded to a scientist at the university here when he took a mountain of local peppers and distilled Vitamin C from them – combining the best of agriculture and scientific research in one big project. When Albert Szent-Gyorgyi finished his distillation, it was the first time anyone had ever seen a vitamin!
Within this innovative agriculture, beekeeping is a star. The country has just ten million people, but over 15,000 are beekeepers. That’s a lot more than there are in Canada. There are also a lot of colonies – over a million. That’s just under half the number as in the entire USA – yet Hungary is a much smaller country. As a result, Hungary has the greatest density of honey bees in all of Europe – perhaps in the world. There are more than 10 hives for each square kilometre (250 acres)!
Each beekeeper has an average of 70 hives. There are few really big operators, but thousands are running a few hundred colonies and earning modest livings as beekeepers. Bees are a big deal here. It wasn’t hard to find a bee magazine at the local newsstand, occupying a slot next to national newspapers and international news magazines.
The articles in the bee journal which you see in my photo are depressingly similar to what you can read every day, in any beekeeping magazine. Mites, nosema, pesticides, short crops, low prices – these are universal beekeeping realities.
Balanced among the despair in the journal are a few encouraging stories – this month’s issue includes a feature about the Horvath family, their 150-250 hives (the number depends on how many splits are made in the spring and how many hives are sold), and their three young kids who help with the family business. As one reads their story (a struggle, but a success), it’s easy to have a touch of nostalgia for the days when commercial beekeeping was at this scale. Granted, this is really hard beekeeping – but it’s a family project.
The Horvaths apparently don’t move bees between black locust (acacia), sunflowers, canola, milkweed, and fall flowers. But many Hungarian beekeepers migrate within the country to try to catch something from the relatively small and unreliable nectar flows which cumulatively yield about 60 pounds per hive per year. It’s barely viable economically. For many Central European beekeepers, the various paths to success include unpaid family help and direct sales to customers. This is the thing I learn each time I talk to beekeepers here. They have an expression that translates “Success at beekeeping comes only when the whole family works together.” Such prerequisites for success are not limited to beekeeping, of course, but there aren’t many examples as good.