In the summers I spent in the Czech Republic with my grandparents, there was always an abundance of honey. My grandfather’s friend Franta was an amateur beekeeper and supplied us with jars of raw, unfiltered honey that he harvested from bees at his chata. In the mornings, jet-lagged and hungry, I would make my way to the dining table, where my grandmother had left me toasted housky, margarine, and Franta’s honey jar. Even now, I recall its amber colour and crystalline texture, like semi-dissolved sugar at the bottom of a coffee mug.
Beekeeping has a long tradition in the Czech Republic. In fact, the Czech Beekeepers Association (Český svaz včelařů) was founded by the Habsburg empress Maria Theresa in 1776. Under her rule, beekeeping became a well-respected trade, as it provided widely-used products, such as beeswax for church candles. Beekeepers even received tax exemptions. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Carniolan bee was introduced into the country, ushering in a new age of beekeeping. The Carniolan was easier to rear than the black bee, which had previously been the most common species. Today, in a country of over 10 million people, there are more than 50,000 beekeepers who maintain over half a million bee colonies. On average, beekeepers have ten bee colonies that they keep to make honey for themselves and for friends, as Franta did for my family.
Empress Maria Theresa was right to hold beekeeping in high regard. Besides producing honey and other products for our consumption, bees pollinate crops. Today, beekeeping operations are critical to modern agriculture. Pollinators are responsible for one in every three bites of food we consume. Nevertheless, the world’s bee population is in decline. While reductions in colony numbers have been observed throughout history, in 2006 the rate of bee decline reached new proportions. The unexplained loss of bee colonies that came to be known as colony collapse disorder was first reported by a commercial beekeeper from Pennsylvania. By February 2007, some beekeeping operators in the United States suffered the loss of 50-90⁒ of their colonies, with European countries also reporting substantial losses. Beekeepers describe colony collapse disorder as a phenomenon whereby the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear from the hive, sometimes leaving behind a queen and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees.
Scientists attribute the decline of honeybees globally in part to the use of neonicotinoid chemicals, one of the most common insecticides in the world. Although no causal link has been established, neonicotinoids have been associated with atypical honeybee behaviour, inhibiting their ability to navigate and weakening their immune function. Impaired immunity leaves honeybees more susceptible to pre-existing pathogens. As such, citing the danger posed to bees, the European Union called for a temporary ban on neonicotinoid-based products on flowering plants in 2013 – a measure that resulted in a permanent ban in 2018.
In the Czech Republic, as elsewhere, bee populations have been affected. According to the Czech Statistical Office, the country’s honey production in 2018 was the lowest it had been in four years. Speaking to Czech Radio, Jana Machová, head of the Czech Beekeepers Association, cited drought as a likely cause for a drop in production. More recent data found that Czech honey production for 2019 was about 15⁒ lower than in 2018. According to the spokesman for the Czech State Veterinary Administration, Petr Majer, the administration investigated 26 cases of mass bee mortality, almost twice as many cases as the previous year. To help combat the environmental and pathogenic factors affecting bee populations, in January 2020, the State Agricultural Intervention Fund (SZIF) announced that beekeepers in the Czech Republic would receive over 64 million CZK (€1.2 million) in subsidies.
Government aid helps beekeepers protect their colonies. While subsidies can attract some newcomers to the practice, many seek out beekeeping due to long-standing family traditions. Magda Zedková, who is a beekeeper and has seven bee colonies in the village of Křížová ve Slezsku in eastern Czech Republic, started her own apiary six years ago. She became involved in 2000 by helping her husband’s grandparents, who have kept bees all their life. For those interested in getting started, she recommends taking advantage of online resources. “It is smart to read a book or online resources in order to have an idea of everything beekeeping consists of. You don’t need any license to become a beekeeper, but you apply to become a member of the Czech Bee Association. Member organizations are almost in every town or village,” she said.
While books can help, for amateur beekeepers it is important to have a mentor. Zedková suggested finding a local beekeeper who would be willing to demonstrate the basics. Describing the process of undertaking beekeeping, Zedková said, “You have to decide what type of hive you want to use and what are all the necessary accessories and equipment you will need, like frames with wax sheets or forks and honey extractors. And of course protective gear – full body overall or just a veil, jacket, and gloves. But most important is the spot where you want to keep your hives.” Because you want to provide bees with pollen year-round, Zedková explained that the location of the hives should be in close proximity to parks and a diverse variety of flowering plants if you are a city beekeeper, or in meadows near forests if in the countryside.
Once you determine a location, said Zedková, then you can start searching for a bee colony. “There are apiaries that sell them online or you can ask a beekeeper near you. You will get five to six frames with bees and a queen bee in a box, which you transfer to your installed hive. Then you just let them settle in.”
The extraction of honey from the hives happens in the beginning of June or July in the Czech Republic. After the harvest is over, when no more plants are blooming, beekeepers give their bees sugar so that the bees can prepare their stocks for winter. After extracting the honey, beekeepers also treat the beehives to prevent mite overgrowth.
If you are not a beekeeper or planning on becoming one, what else can you do to promote bee health? Another way to get involved is by protecting bee habitat. Urban sprawl has led to a decrease in green spaces and habitat fragmentation, making it harder for bees to forage for pollen. Growing a variety of plants that produce blooms throughout the year in a garden, or even on a balcony, will supply bees with pollen throughout the year. Also, buying locally-sold honey or beeswax products supports non-commercial beekeepers with smaller colonies. The website Najdi si včelaře can help locate a beekeeper selling honey near you.
Although the state of bee populations worldwide is deteriorating in the near term, thanks to government subsidies and a devoted league of beekeepers maintaining strong traditions, the outlook for Czech honeybees is optimistic. One thing is still certain, bee health and human health are inextricably linked. Promoting pollinator health and supporting their stewards – beekeepers – remains ever more important for our communal wellbeing.