An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: The Father of Euro-Beekeeping

Posted on October 12, 2014


In this modern world of everyone being expected to have hyper-exaggerated opinions on anything and everything, not a day goes by without the fate of the bee (and with it the fate of ALL LIFE ON EARTH AS WE KNOW IT) being dramatically lamented. I’m certainly not going to argue the importance of the bee species, I like eating after all and bees pollinate most of the stuff we make into food. It seems that despite everyone knowing what is going to happen, we still do nothing about it except make a plethora of jokes about how much we hate wasps.

The fancy scientific name for beekeeping is apiculture, and has been practiced by humans since at least forever. We’ve tried to domesticate wild bees since we could work out what to do with our hands, from a time long before the Slavs trundled their way towards Europe in the 6th century. Of course, apiculture has evolved plenty over the centuries, and a lot of modern apiculture comes from the studies and teachings of a Slovene chap from Breznica, named Anton Janša.

Born in 1734, Janša developed an interest in painting from a young age. He shared this interest, or possibly established it, along with his two brothers. Despite their illiteracy, they all packed up and went off to Vienna to enrol at the engraving school there. Now, only one of the brothers would graduate and further their work in the art, but our buddy Anton discovered his true love during this time.

He was no stranger to bees. His family had a history of beekeeping, and his father had over 500 hives at home. Discussions about beekeeping would dominate talk at the tavern with all the local farmers. This had fuelled Anton’s curiosity, and as there was something of a gap in apiculture knowledge in the Austrian Empire at the time, he quickly slipped into a career working with these hardworking little fellas. By 1769 he had entered full time work as a beekeeper, and in what seems like something of a meteoric rise he became the first royally appointed teacher of apiculture for all of the Austrian-owned lands. Not bad, not bad.

‘Amongst all God’s beings there are none so hardworking and useful to man with so little attention need for its keep as the bee’

Janša’s duties were fairly simple, but important nonetheless. He kept the bees in the imperial gardens, but his main task was to travel around the land presenting his bee observations, and he had plenty of them. He came to change the size and shape of the hive, meaning they could be stacked upon each other like blocks. He also used his experience as a painter and decorated the fronts of hives, which were previously bland and uninspiring. He would write two books in Germany during his work at the court, entitled ‘Discussion in Beekeeping’ and ‘A Full Guide to Beekeeping’. His bee lectures were famous throughout the lands, and he popularised the method of smoking bees out of their hives for the honey. He would die in Vienna in 1773, of typhus. Grim.

Despite the typhus-death, the rest is pretty good going for a little kid from Breznica. A fairly uninspiring town, it has the usual Plečnik architecture and green areas but not much else. He certainly wouldn’t be revered as the king of the hive (the hive of beekeeping), but his work was influential enough to be considered the only resource for those in the Austrian empire who studied apiculture following his death, and he is considered one of the fathers of European apiculture. The 19th century saw further developments in apiculture, and although the 20th century would see us push on our attempts to eradicate the bee, the art is still practiced today. Slovenia is the only country that officially protects is national bee no less, and Janša would probably be rather chuffed to know this. He could also be considered the first great man in the history of beekeeping, which sits well with the hyperbole lamented at the top.