Czechs have a reputation as beer-lovers, but not everyone knows that they are extremely fond of honey. In fact, the Czech Republic has one of the highest numbers of beekeepers in the world and many of them are located right in the center of Prague.
The pollen season in the Czech Republic is in full swing and while it may be annoying for those who suffer from pollen allergies, beekeepers, and their bees, are rejoicing. The Czech Beekeepers' Association to date registers around 53,000 beekeepers in the country, with around 600 of them in the Czech capital. And according to the association, their numbers gradually keep growing.
Dalibor Titěra is the head of the research department at the Czech beekeeping Institute:
“Beekeeping in the Czech Republic has had a long tradition. The number of beekeepers and bee colonies per one square meters is one of the highest, perhaps even the highest, in Europe. What is typical for Czech beekeeping is that we mostly consider it a hobby. Czech beekeepers have around ten bee colonies on average. They keep them for pleasure, to make honey for themselves and their families.”
According to Mr Titěra, there have always been beekeepers in Prague, usually keeping their hives in one of the city’s many gardening colonies. But in recent years, keeping bees in the city has become something of a trend, and you can find them even in the very center of the capital, on the rooves of shopping centers as well as on people’s terraces and balconies.
The luxury Intercontinental hotel, located in the very center of Prague, offers its guests honey produced by its own bees, living in hives on the hotel's roof. And bee colonies are also buzzing along the runway of Prague's Václav Havel airport.
Even though Prague is known for having fairly high levels of air pollution, Dalibor Titěra assures me that it definitely doesn't affect the quality of local honey. In fact, he says, its quality is comparable to that produced in the countryside:
“Some years ago, the agriculture and environment ministries commissioned a very detailed survey, which involved taking samples from twenty localities across the Czech Republic, including the ones with heavy air pollution. It turned out that as concerns honey the difference between the polluted localities didn't show. First of all, plants protect their reproductive organs and secondly, bees can evidently filter the dirt.”
Bees are quite undemanding in terms of maintenance and there are no special requirements or limitations for their breeding. According to Mr Titěra, you can place your hive pretty much anywhere you want to:
“The Czech laws only say that you shouldn't really bother your neighbors, whatever that means. So if something happens, it’s up to a court to deal with it. The Czech Beekeepers' Association is responsible for breeding a so-called včela kraňská (a subspecies of the western honey bee), which is very gentle and non-aggressive, as long as it doesn't crossbreed with different species. So if someone breeds this species with a ‘pedigree’, they can be sure that the next generation will be nice as well.”
One of the Prague locals who have fallen for beekeeping is Robert Šulman. A civil engineer by profession, he started with beekeeping only a couple of years ago. Mr Šulman lives in Prague's district of Vyšehrad, just a stones' throw from the city center. I met with him in a leafy garden just round the corner from his apartment, where he keeps his hives.
Despite the time of the year, his hives were unusually quiet. Unfortunately, most of his bees have fallen victim to the varoosis disease, which has been destroying bee colonies across the whole world. Still, he told me all about his beekeeping passion and how it all started.
“My colleague is a beekeeper in a small village outside of Prague and he tried to convince me to become a beekeeper as well. But I told him it wasn’t for me: I was a city boy and I didn’t really like birds or bees.
“But two years later I came across an article about an old guy who was keeping hives on the roof of the Paris opera. He explained that it was good to keep bees in the city, since there is plenty of trees and flowers even in the summer, not just in spring.
“So I thought: if it’s possible to keep bees in Paris than it is possible to keep them in Prague as well. So I approached the Czech Beekeepers’ Association, but they were not very friendly, so in the end I started just by myself, with the advice of my colleagues. I found two hives in Moravia and brought them to Prague.”
“That was five years ago.”
“At that time, people were very surprised to see hives in the city. They thought they had nothing to eat here. Now, five years later, when I talk to my friends in the village, they tell me I am really lucky to have bees in the city, because there are plenty of flowers, as you can see.
“In the countryside, the season is nearly over, because of the monoculture agriculture, so the bees have only two months to feed.”
So you would say that the variety of plants and flowers is richer here than in the city.
“Yes, paradoxically, it is better in the town these days.”
When you started, how difficult was it to set up the whole business and how much did it actually cost?
“That’s two different questions. Keeping the hives is much better these days than it was five or ten years ago. I discovered the Langstroth system - a system of keeping hives, which is very practical and easy for manipulation. It is the secret of old beekeepers.
“And the cost? There is actually a programme run by the European Union. If you start with beekeeping, for the first ten hives you can get 10,000 crowns per each, which is quite a lot.
“But it’s not possible to earn a lot of money from ten hives. You would need many more. So for me, it’s really just a hobby.”
How much honey do you actually produce per year?
“From this kind of hives I can get more than twenty kilos from one hive. So you can count it. Now I have five hives, so that’s more than a hundred kilo per year.”
So that’s more than enough for your own consumption…
“Yes, of course. I also have to say that I can recognise the taste of my honey among many other honeys, because the taste of my honey is really special. It’s a mix of the local trees and flowers, especially from the park behind me, so it is really unique.”
“I like to have around six hives. When I take honey from them, it takes me a whole day, from ten in the morning till ten in the evening. But on average it takes me about half a day in the week during the high season, in the springtime.
In the summer time, it is less. And in the autumn you need to feed them and you have to check the hives about two times in September, but it is really not that much.”
You said it wasn’t difficult to start with beekeeping. In terms of bureaucracy, did you need any special permission to set up the hives?
“There is only one rule you must follow. You get a number for the State Veterinary Association and you have to announce every year how many hives you have and where they are located.”
When you were looking for a place to keep the hives, was it difficult to find the right spot?
“Naturally you try to find the best place for your bees. As you can see, this is under the trees, but it’s not right next to the walls. So in the springtime, the sun can get through to the hives and in the summer, when it is hot, it is covered by leaves. It cannot be anywhere windy or wet. And in the city it must also be hidden from people’s eyes.”
Finally this was not a good year for beekeepers, so how much honey do you expect to produce this year?
“This year I will have no honey because I have no hives except one. It will be difficult this year to start again, because there is another kind of disease - včelí mor (the plague of bee larvae). If you find this disease in your hive, you must burn all of your bees.
“A guy from the opposite side of Prague has recently brought this disease from his countryside hives to the city and all of the city’s bees are now under quarantine. We cannot sell the hives and we have to ask the vet for permission if we want to bring something inside the city.
But that definitely doesn't mean the end of your beekeeping, is that right?
“Definitely not. I have only just started...”