World Bee Day, May 20 of each year, is not just about honey bees. Although the idea arose in Slovenia, a little country that’s really big on honey-bee keeping, it’s also a celebration of all the world’s bees. About 20,000 species – made up of several trillion individuals.
Bees of all sorts are the chief pollinators of the world’s flowers. The flowers that attract bees reseed meadows and forests with progeny that build soil, feed grazing animals, and provide us – the humans – with much of the beauty we see in nature and the food we eat.
From a practical, utilitarian perspective, we might wonder if we really need 20,000 kinds of bees. Aren’t honey bees enough? They pollinate our foods – almonds and apples and so on – while many important foods (rice, wheat, corn) are wind-pollinated. Yet we have a vast array of bees that are not honey-makers. Some of the many ‘extra’ bee species are specialists. For example, the dogwood tree, genus Cornus, are kept alive in part by three rare species of miner bees, the Andrena. Take away the dogwood, with its bold early flash of spring brightness, and the Appalachians would be a more dreary place. In the years when I drove truck loads of honey bees from Florida to Saskatchewan, white and pink dogwoods and yellow forsythia were harbingers of the birth of a new year’s honey cycle. The irony is not lost on me – I carted millions of honey bees (which originated in Europe) from Florida’s orange trees (originally from southeast Asia) to prairie alfalfa (a native of the Middle East). Yet, during my 4,000-kilometre migration, one of the most beautiful sights was the blossoming native dogwood, sustained by a tiny native bee.
We might dismiss the role of the other (approximately) 19,999 species of bees as long as we are keeping our favoured western honey bee functioning. But every species has a role to play in our ecology. The loss of a few kinds of bees (some species have recently gone extinct) may seem trivial. They may pass unmourned, except by the plants which relied on them for transferring their pollen, and the animals which survived off those plants. The interconnection of the web reminds me of the centuries-old proverb which begins, “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost…” and continues until the entire kingdom was lost.
The BBC, in a little piece about World Bee Day, recounts the 17 bee species which have gone extinct in England’s southeast and the plight of 25 more species that are threatened. The article recognizes the interconnected state of biodiversity and ecology and illuminates the importance of a day for the bees.
So, on this year’s World Bee Day, I’m thinking of the ‘other’ bees as well as those two colonies of honey bees in my back yard. Meanwhile, I’m ending this note with a bit more about bee day, including a bit (published over the past few years) about how World Bee Day came into existence.
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From 2019: May 20th should be a big date on the beekeeper’s social calendar. It’s World Bee Day. Why did I mention 1734? That’s the year Anton Janša was born. He was baptized on May 2oth, the closest date we know to his actual birthdate. Some say that Janša was the first modern beekeeper. You can learn more about him later in this blog post.
As an added bonus, May 20 is also another famous beekeeper’s memorial day. Charles Dadant, the scion of the infinite Dadant and Sons progression of beekeepers was born in France in 1817. Dadant thought he’d be a revolutionary back in the day, in France, but he ended up in America. (You can read his story in my piece celebrating his 200th year.) Charles Dadant, born on May 20, 1817, ended up in western Illinois where he wanted to grow grapes for wine. Lucky for us, his beehives did much better than his vineyards.
World Bee Day was initiated in Slovenia, Europe, and has been quickly catching around the world. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel concluded a major speech Wednesday with a rousing endorsement of World Bee Day, telling members of the Bundestag to do something good for the bees:
“I want to finish with something that some may consider insignificant but is actually very important: on May 20 is the first World Bee Day. On this day we should really think about biodiversity and do something good for the bees.”
World Bee Day became World Bee Day after a successful campaign by the country of Slovenia (Anton Janša’s birthplace) to promulgate the message. Their petition to the United Nations was accepted in December 2017, so this year marks the first official World Bee Day. I’ve been following (and promoting World Bee Day) ever since I heard the effort was underway a couple of years ago, so below you’ll see some of my earlier posts.
Well, a great big congratulations to the Slovenian promoters of World Bee Day. You made it happen on the world stage! And beekeepers, it’s your job to go out and spread the good word and “do something good for the bees”. If you need some further inspiration, watch this World Bee Day video to fortify your resolve – it’s about the first hive of honey bees kept at the United Nations in New York City.
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FROM 2017: May 20 is World Bee Day. Seems an appropriate day to celebrate the bee. (So was yesterday; tomorrow would be good, too.) It’s spring north of the equator. I don’t want to neglect our friends south of Earth’s belt, but honey bees began their world-wide conquest by expanding from the northern hemisphere. For most of us in the higher (positive) latitudes, May is a fantastic bee month. Colonies expand, swarm, and maybe even make a little honey.
May 20th is also the celebrated birthdate of Anton Janša (1734-1773), the first teacher of modern beekeeping. (It’s ‘celebrated’ on May 20th, which was his baptism date. We don’t know the exact day of his birth.) Anton Janša was Slovenian (hence the funny little squiggle over the ‘s’ in his name). He was so talented that Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa appointed him headmaster at the world’s first beekeeping school, which she built for Janša in Vienna. It’s remarkable that he chose to be baptized on the same day that we would pick centuries later as World Bee Day. That date was chosen and promoted by beekeepers in Janša’s native Slovenia – do the coincidences never end? Now here I am, Ron Mikša (anglicized to Miksha), a bee blogger with grandparents who were born in that part of the world, encouraging you to do a wiggle dance in celebration of World Bee Day this Sunday. Get out and do something beely.
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FROM 2016: There’s a small country in Central Europe, a very beautiful alpine country, called Slovenia. Slovenia has only two million people, but this tiny country is very big in beekeeping. Tucked between Italy and Austria, it has both mountains and Mediterranean sea coast, creating enticing niches for bees and beekeepers.
Every Slovene family has at least one beekeeper. I think beekeeping might be enshrined in their constitution. I visited before Slovenia adopted the Euro and I paid for a Laško with coins that had images of bees, not presidents or queens. Beekeeping is taken so seriously that the nation’s unofficial motto is “Land of the Good Beekeepers“. The country produces gourmet honey, offers beekeeping tourism, and likes to point out that the Slovenes – the wealthiest Slavic nation in the world – takes its work ethic from the honey bee. On top of all this, I’m proud to say that two of my grandparents were born in Slovenia! What a remarkable place, eh?
Janša (pronounced YAN-shah) is a Slovenian national hero and a beekeeper. We don’t really know his birth date – his parents were illiterate farmers and probably wouldn’t have even known (or cared) what year it was. But their church kept track. He was baptized on May 20 in 1734.
The Janša family was impoverished, but three Janša brothers built an art studio in a barn, got noticed by the village priest, and were whisked off to Vienna, the capital of the Hapsburg Empire, which controlled Slovenia at the time. One of the brothers became an arts professor. Another became a beekeeper. The royal beekeeper.
Anton Janša was the beekeeper. Empress Maria Theresa recognized his skill and appointed him as the queen’s own bee man. Janša created the world’s first beekeeping school, wrote a couple of important beekeeping books, and introduced modern apiary management. He championed expanding hive boxes to hold extra honey and he encouraged migratory beekeeping, moving hives toward the foothills in the spring to collect acacia (black locust) honey, the Alps in the summer for honeydew from the pines, and into lower pastures in the fall. He was among the first to realize that drones are not water-carriers, but instead mated in the air with queen bees. This latter discovery pre-dates Francois Huber’s similar observation by a few decades but was not generally known when Huber rediscovered it. Janša did all this before he turned 40 – he was only 39 when he died suddenly from a fever, likely the result of an infection.
Here’s a lovely, short video of what the Slovenes want you to know about World Bee Day:
World Bee Day is a great idea. The exhibition “Save the Bees” will be opening at the historic Ljubljana castle, on May 20. The Slovene embassy in Washington DC had a big party. Elsewhere, awareness and round tables on “Bees and Sustainable Development” and bee memorials abound. World Bee Day is intended as a day to reflect upon the much maligned and threatened bees. A delegation of the European Union is also meeting May 20 with luminaries of the American bee world at a World Bee Initiative, which you can read about here.
World Bee Day is immensely important. Maybe that’s why there are two world bee days. A group of Americans petitioned the USDA to create a World Bee Day of their own – on August 20th. While the Americans worked their idea through the US Congress, the Slovenes asked the United Nations to recognize May 20th as World Bee Day. I’m not sure how all this will play out, maybe the two world bee days will merge and be observed sometime in June or July. But I suppose both world bee days will persist, one on a world-scale, the other in the USA. As they say back at the bee lodge, “You can’t have too many World Bee Days, eh?”