The Fascinating History of Polish Honey

Honey produced in Poland has always been esteemed as a type of liquid gold. Historically, many bee colonies were under control of the royal landowners. Stealing honey from their estates was often met with death on the gallows.  Destroying an entire colony of bees, even if they belonged to the accused, resulted in an unimaginable punishment: evisceration. The person would “be handed over to the executioner, who shall take out the entrails and wind them round the tree in which the bees were willfully destroyed and shall afterwards hang him on the same tree.”[1]


A Polish beekeeper from 1870

Tree forest honey, considered the most prized variety, is a deep golden color and has a slightly smoky taste. It contains seven times more micronutrients than the more common varieties and is grown in territories that lie far from the pesticide strewn fields of agribusiness. Poland is currently the only EU country to produce honey from wild beehives in tree hollows.

For countless centuries, the honey bee was the most important of insect species. Without the honeybee, human life would not be possible thanks to its activity as a pollinator. Albert Einstein warned us about our dependence on the bees. “If the bee disappears from the Earth, man will have only four years of life; no more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals,  no more people…”

Beekeeping in Poland was one of the most lucrative sectors of the economy, more important than hunting or the timber trade. In 1775, profits from the wax and honey were valued at 30 times that of wood products.

Working with the wild hives required significant skill and patience and beekeepers were treated with respect and admiration as reflected in the laws. These men were generally free people and had the right to carry weapons and to hunt and fish. The beekeepers passed down their occupation to their sons. They enjoyed living under a separate set of laws, a significant privilege during the centuries of serfdom that ended in 1848.

Ancient beekeeping was a tedious process. After first collecting honey from wild bees’ nests, ancient beekeepers gradually learned how to give the insects a helping hand by cutting holes in trees and leaving honeycomb to attract a swarm. The subsequent nest was opened only twice a year: once in the spring to examine how well the bees had survived the winter, and again in the autumn to harvest the honey. Trees hosting hives were marked with the signs of their owners.

Wild beekeeping disappeared in the nineteenth century because of the availability of sugar from the sugar beet. Also, the increased demand for wood accompanied the development of industries and architecture. Beekeepers were accused of intentionally burning forest undergrowth which resulted in forest fires.  This situation gave way to the creation of apiaries and hive gardens.

During the 1980s, a disease of Asian origin caused by the Varroa destructor or mite wiped out the remaining wild bees buzzing around Poland’s forests.  Today, the keeping of wild bees has been revived by a group of enthusiasts who number around five thousand. Most of the beekeepers live in the provinces of Lesser Poland, Lublin, Subcarpathia, and Silesia. About 97 percent of Poland’s beekeepers maintained less than 80 hives – any more and it has to be registered as agricultural activity.

  

Environmental groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and groups of beekeepers from Poland’s national parks and ethnographic museums deserve much of the credit for the revival of beekeeping.

On our last trip to visit cousins in Poland, we were gifted with two large jars of honey and a bag of precious dried mushrooms.  We learned that USA customs’ regulations allow these items to be brought to America for personal consumption, but kept only one jar because of weight limits.

    

Many of the wonderful ethnographic museum villages feature old hives. We found examples at the Kolbuszowa museum showing both the older tree hive and a more “modern hive” from the late 19th century.

[1] British Bee Journal, January 19, 1888, volume 16 page 33.

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