On the 15th Session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (14-18 December 2020), something amazing happened: Beekeepers were added for the first time on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
These are no ordinary beekeepers but more specifically, tree beekeepers from Poland and Belarus. For those beekeepers’ families and community, values revolve around respectful beekeeping practices, dating as far back as the 13th century. They were akin to honey hunters as they would collect the honeycomb from tree trunks where wild bee colonies nested and were highly regarded within their own communities, with knowledge and expertise being passed down by generations.
In fact, early inscriptions form the region even showed that several symbols, called stigmas, referred to the “forest” in which each beekeeper’s family hunted for honey. These symbols were also marked on the trees, marking ownership of these colonies and theft of such was treated with outmost severity.
These families would later craft hives made of pine logs, prepare their own tools (ropes, baskets, smokers, etc) and install the hives as high up on the tree as possible. This was a whole family operation, with men rolling the logs, women attaching them to the rope and guiding them while the men raised them on the tree and finally, the kids harvesting the combs by climbing up and hoisting a basket for collection.
Photos from gov.pl: 1) Log hives 2) Equipment needed to lift hive up on tree and to harvest honey 3) Melting wax from the honeycomb
So why do these individuals and their craft belong to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity?
First of all, the craft of beekeeping has been passed on through countless generations, for the last eight centuries. It is as traditional as beekeeping in skeps, and involves years of culmination of knowledge and expertise. Most importantly, the skills do not relate to bee management, as they do not interfere in the colony’s day to day runnings. They do not provide supplementary food (as many modern beekeepers do), nor do they use any chemicals or medicine in case of poor health.
No, the skills that are so crucial relate to observation, respect and understanding of the wild colonies’ habits and natural needs. More practical skills are those of building the log hives, creating the ropes and wheels, climbing trees and, of course, processing the honeycombs once removed (but with enough combs left behind for the bees themselves).
Furthermore, with the increasing importance and urgency in protecting wildlife, tree beekeepers promote a more natural way of “keeping” bees. They use simple, and where possible, natural materials and use traditional processing methods. They have essentially, been pioneering the practice of sustainable beekeeping for the last 800 years!
So what now?
The number of tree beekeepers in the region was dwindling, due to the hard work and high risk involved with climbing trees. Demand for handmade beeswax candles and competing prices in honey (adulterated or not) had made it difficult for these families to continue their practice alone.
However, wild honeybee colonies do not cease to exist and one man, Tomasz Dzierżanowski, has been determined to keep this art alive, while supporting the survival of wild honeybees. In 2014, he began his efforts together with WWF and the small communities of the local tree beekeepers. He undertook extensive training from the older generation, learning how to build the log hives, install and harvest them and was officially “graduated” and ready to teach others.
During their project, they had identified and marked a total of 66 tree hives and 14 log hives around Poland. (Source with many photos: WWF Project Report)
Thanks to Tomasz, wild honeybees have had a lot of attention from the wider beekeeping community with new groups advocating for more natural beekeeping practices, such as the Natural Beekeeping Trust (UK). Tomasz now conducts tree beekeeping workshops in Poland, for those interested in a more natural way of honey and beeswax harvest, and are not afraid of heights. The official website is found here.
If you are lucky to be planning a visit to Poland, add a visit to the Kurpiowska Forest, home of the Kurpie people and attend the Kurpie Honey Harvest for a culturally rich experience, full of nature, tradition and sweetness.
For now, I leave you with this inspiring video from UNESCO, celebrating the Tree Beekeepers of Poland and Belarus, an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 🐝
Featured image “Beekeeping culture” on the UNESCO list photo by Alfred Mikus