BEEKEEPING: A day in the life of a Latvian beekeeper

  • 2008-08-27
  • By Monika Hanley

WORKER BEES: They work for you and they don`t know it.

Even people who don't insects like this one. The honey bee has had a symbiotic relationship with man for thousands of years but for Baltic people it's very special. People like to make their own honey.  Almost everybody who has lived in the region a while knows someone who keeps bees.  It is very much a cottage industry, but that doesn't mean that hard economics do not affect production. We find out in one feature that some keepers are pretty fearless. They don't need body armor and smoke guns they love their bees and the little critters seem to know it and don't sting them.  At least that's what keepers would have you believe. This week's Industry Insider is about honey and beekeeping.

RIGA - In Latvia's beekeeping area of Zemgale, beekeepers are a fearless bunch. They don't wear full body suits or carry smoke guns here; they opt for a simpler and more daring method. At the right time of day, they go out to the hives casually dressed, remove a chunk, blow off a few bees, decap it, and cut it up, put it into containers and it's ready to sell.

A day in the life of a beekeeper is simple, with June being the busiest month for harvesting and the remaining times of year used mostly for maintenance.
Alvis Gailis has been working with bees for over 20 years.
"The process is really simple. You take the rack from the hive, check to see if the comb is capped, and if it is, then it's ready," he says.
He warms up a flat knife and cuts off the thin layer of wax capping that seals the honey in. He pops some in his mouth.

"This has many minerals and contains high amount of propolis. You chew it and it cleans out your mouth," he says. Propolis is a waxy material that bees use as cement for repairs and maintenance on the hive.
This piece of folk medicine is taken seriously throughout Europe. Colgate even makes a propolis toothpaste.
Beekeepers in Latvia use nearly every part of the hive, including honey, propolis, wax, royal jelly and ambrosia, or bee bread. "Bees are the greatest creatures. Everything they produce is important," says Alvis' wife Jana.
While the honey flow is the greatest during summer months, autumn yields quite a bit of honey as well.
Alvis explains: "During autumn, sunflowers are blooming as well as goldenrod and other wildflowers. It makes a bitterer flavor of honey, but it's still sweet."

The benefits of a simple beekeeping lifestyle are huge. Alvis' neighbor Dangese expounds on the many ways honey is necessary for a good life: "Honey is a constant your whole life. When you're young, you eat more heather honey if you don't have enough iron. Buckwheat honey is used when you're a teen to ease growing pains. You eat some royal jelly if you have a stomach ache when you're older. When you're sick you always drink tea with Linden blossoms."

Indeed, the uses of honey go far beyond the hive and the beekeeper. Beekeeping in Latvia has been documented since the ninth century and has been a sacred thing since the beginning. Many folk songs and sayings revolve around beekeeping and every Latvian, no matter how old, keeps the tradition alive and knows exactly which type of honey or bee byproduct is good for which ailment.
Honey is such a large part of Latvian culture that during the 2006 NATO summit in Riga, over 320 liters of honey were given to guests.

Legend has it that the reason the people of the Baltics are so strong is because of the healthy benefits from honey. But Alvis's view is simpler. "Life can be bitter," he says. "Latvians love anything that makes it sweeter."