Upon a rooftop in the country of honey

The younger generations of Lithuania are embracing the country’s rich beekeeping history and continuing traditions with a modern approach.

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Tomas Balžekas, left, and Andrė Balžekienė, right, stand in front of their rooftop beehives.

When picturing the ideal location for beehives, often a farm setting or a rural environment is imagined. However, seldom are beehives thought to be residing on the roof of an apartment in the middle of a city, but that is exactly where Andrė Balžekienė works as a beekeeper. This trend of urban beekeeping is becoming increasingly more common in places like Manhattan, Paris, and the capital of the country of honey and beekeepers, Vilnius, Lithuania.

Lithuania is a country of rich beekeeping history. Almost every Lithuanian has had a beekeeper in their family. For this agricultural country, keeping bees was as common as keeping cows. Much of the Lithuanian population resided in the countryside for many years where they kept bees and produced honey. Honey was used as a sweetener and as a substitute for sugar since sugar was a commodity that mainly the wealthy had access to. Lithuania doesn’t necessarily do anything scientifically significant in the art of beekeeping, but it comes natural to its people. 

The urban beekeeping process is not much different from traditional beekeeping, but Andrė touched on some core differences.  “Of course if you put the bees in the forest there is more food for the bees; more nectar to collect.” Bees can fly up to three kilometres to search for food. In the cities, bees can find food from flowers grown on balconies, plants in parks, or nectar from the blossoming trees. “You cannot produce as much honey as you could in the natural surroundings as you do in the city. We get about 15 kilograms from one beehive placed on the roof of our apartment in Vilnius, compared to 40 kg harvest from one beehive in the countryside.” With more people living in the cities, like Vilnius, beekeeping has been brought to the rooftops and the younger generations continue to carry on Lithuania’s beekeeping traditions after inheriting beehives from their grandparents.

Andrė is neither a farmer nor a beekeeper by education. She graduated from Vilnius University with a concentration in journalism and worked for many years in the cinema industry and promoted cinema projects at film festivals in Lithuania. Once she began a family with her husband Tomas Balžekas, she explored different hobbies. “Just like for many women after they have a child something changes, and it happened for me as well. I just wanted to try something during that period of time where I had more free time.” With both her and her husband’s grandfather’s being beekeepers, the practice was around them all of the time. Naturally they started their own beekeeping business.

The grandfather of Tomas Balžekas is the reason they are beekeepers today. He was a well known Lithuanian beekeeper who worked as a professor and was the former president of the Beekeeper’s Union. When he passed away, he left five or six beehives to all of his grandchildren. “We decided that we don’t want his name to be forgotten,” Andrė said. They started their small beekeeping family business by first focusing on two fields once owned by the grandfather, and then shifted operations to the city. “We like to do it as a hobby and for fun and maybe this is more interesting for everyone; having bees on the roof of our apartment in Užupis.”

Their small family business, Balžeko Bitės, is owned by Andrė and Tomas today. They produce honey and some products from the beeswax, like candles and Christmas ornaments. Andrė desired to make her honey stand out from the rest. “My approach to honey was that I wanted to make it elegant and stylish and more contemporary than it is usually. I want the honey jar to look a little bit like perfume, that you wouldn’t want to hide it somewhere, that you want to put it on the table to taste it and to really find it a nice gift, a nice product.” This is what makes her product different from others in Lithuania, and the reason why people usually want to buy her honey – because it is beautiful.

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Andrė, left, and Tomas, right, add honeycomb ornaments to a tree.

Andrė explained how Christmas decorations from beeswax are common in countries like Germany, Austria, and others where they decorate Christmas trees with more natural ornaments. Producing ornaments was a common hobby for beekeeper wives during the long evenings of winter where there was no work to do. With all of the excess beeswax, creating Christmas ornaments gave them an opportunity to make something nice from it. Andrė’s products are unique, because they are not sold in supermarkets, but rather only locally sold, and are quite artisan in design, much like her honey.

Urban environments may be more convenient for some beekeepers, but there are some drawbacks. “Obviously cities are much more polluted. They get sick easier,” Andrė said. Sickness in bees has become more prevalent. It is no secret that in recent years there has been a crisis for the European bee populations. There is still speculation over the main reason for the deaths of bees, but Andrė believes it has something to do with pesticides that make plants more resistant to some insects. “Banning the pesticides would help a lot of the bees survive,” she said. Diseases in bees mutate quickly and result in new viruses. “It is really hard for beekeepers to preserve the bees; that they will be healthy.” 

Andrė went on to explain the benefits beekeeping has on the bees and their health. “Beekeeping is still a job that is a little bit philosophical. You will hear beekeepers often say that you have to take care of bees, but you cannot control them.” Bees existed millions of years before humans, and humans had to adapt to their yearly routine. If the bees are wild, then “you couldn’t save them from diseases. It is really important for them to be under human’s control,” Andrė said. “We have to take care of bees. They produce what we have: vegetables, apples, rice, everything.”  

For those who get nervous around bees, Andrė gave a few tips. She advises, “not to be nervous. Bees somehow feel the adrenalin, so you have to be calm. Bees have no wish to attack you; they do not care about you at all, unless disturbed. And if you somehow disturb them accidentally or intentionally, they will react.” The old beekeepers can go to their bees with bare hands because they know how the bees react and how they need to act; calm and confident. Bees can also react if a person smells strangely, whether it be from perfume or drinking alcohol. 

Andrė strives to highlight honey’s value as an alternative sweetener. “I always prefer honey to sugar. I wish everyone would do that, because it is healthier and more natural. Sugar is called the white death and if you are having too much sugar it reduces calcium in your body, and with honey you only have good ethics, it is nutritional, and has lots of minerals and vitamins. And what I am trying to do among my friends and my family is that I would like to reduce the amount of sugar we consume and eat more honey.”

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