When Bees Become Culture

I’m in the central European country of Hungary for a few days. It’s a family visit with no work or particular sightseeing goals. But honey bee culture is everywhere. Perhaps only Utah (“The Beehive State”) and the little alpine nation of Slovenia are more closely tied to a beekeeping heritage.

You can catch glimpses of the bee everywhere. Here’s a litter box, anonymously enhanced by a creative graffiti artist. I saw this in the Liszt Ferencz Walking Park – named for the musical genius Franz Liszt, composer of Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2, a piece which you know, but perhaps not by name.

I wonder who the waste can artist was. Other dispensers in the park were more profanely annotated than this one. Was this artwork added under cover of twilight, or was there a cheering entourage of fine arts and beekeeping enthusiasts on hand, encouraging the itinerant painter? I shall never know.

Meanwhile, a stop at our favourite ice cream cafe on a city centre plaza shows us another cultural permutation of the Hungarian honey bee – this time a culinary treat. At perhaps 2,000 calories per plate, the 690 Ft ($3.50) Maja the Bee ice cream dish is a delightful indulgence. It’s creative and tasty – I saw one of these icy bees being consumed at an alarming pace at nearby table.

If you look for the honey bee in central Europe – a place with  2,000 years of beekeeping history – you’ll see lots of examples of the winged symbol of hard work and prosperity – frescoes, statuettes carved into buildings, murals. With 0ver 15,000 beekeepers out of a population of fewer than ten million folks, one in 600 people keeps bees. That makes it ten times more likely that you’ll bump into a beekeeper on the street here than in the USA.

A Hungarian honey shop

Honey shops abound. Szeged, the city of 200,000 in which I holidayed, has at least three honey stores. These are small shops, perhaps 500 square feet, on less expensive side-streets, with doors opening directly to the sidewalk. People walk in – sometimes with empty buckets in hand – and chose from ‘Mixed’ or ‘Milkweed’ or ‘Acacia’ (black locust) or other floral honeys. Customers might also pick up pollen, wax, or candles. In one shop, I was told that all the products were produced by the store-owner’s beekeeping family. Because beekeepers tend to be small-scale commercial (300-hive) operations and climate and floral distribution yields modest crops (40 to 60 pounds per year), direct marketing gives the family an edge. I wrote a bit about this for the American Bee Journal a few years ago – here’s a copy of that article (Monks, Doctors, and Little Old Ladies: The Beekeepers of Hungary) for you.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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4 Responses to When Bees Become Culture

  1. Pedantic reader must point out that “méhecske” is an affectionate diminutive of “méhe” so the menu is calling her something like Maja the Darling Wee Bee.

    We hope you are enjoying the trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Wow, you are definitely sharp! I should send you the address of the cafe so you can suggest that they fix the English translation on their menu! Actually, though, Maja the Bee is a cartoon character which has been translated as Maja, a méhecske, so you’ll have to go after book publishers and animators in Hungary, too!
      Have you been to Szeged? It’s a beautiful city, rebuilt (after the 1879 flood) in the 1880s, largely in a baroque theme. The cafe is the A Cappella Cafe’ and Confectionery. I especially like their chestnut puree, but the ice cream is also excellent.


  2. Pingback: When Bees Become Culture | Raising Honey Bees

  3. Pingback: When Bees Become Culture | Beginner Beekeeper

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