A Buzzing Business

In Hungary, a part-time beekeeper has turned his hobby into an obsession and lucrative source of income

News | Daniel Gloeckler | July / August 2010

Etched in stone, from as early as 2422 BC, primitive human figures are carved into the walls of the once lively 5th Dynasty, Nyuserre Ini sun temple. Faded colours are still visible on the stiff Egyptian workers, depicted blowing smoke at beehives. Their motions are captured in unison.

The ancient art of beekeeping thus hails back at least to the Egyptians. And it seems fitting, somehow, that one of the most complex societies in history figured out how to domesticate one of the most complex insects. These tiny, often feared, insects offer a vast range of by-products besides their sole task of collecting honey for the hives livelihood. Being stung hardly seems something to whine about; their bottom halves are ripped from the upper...

For Csaba Varga, a part-time beekeeper in the southern Hungarian county of Baranya what at first started off as a hobby has become an obsession.

"Someone in the village had a very ill horse, fed it food laced with propolis – that comes from the honey – and as if a miracle had occurred," he reveals, still in awe. "The creature was up and healthy within days." Varga needed to know more. Now, an avid student to the study of bees and their benefits, he revealed that propolis is the perfect way to treat animals with infectious worms. He uses it himself if nothing else is at home.

Varga started domesticating bees about two years ago, after his brother’s hive started to part – after a while beehives decide to separate into two, one of which goes off and starts a hive of their own. Initially, he went about beekeeping as a fun way to make money on the side, but after a year or so business started a buzzin’.

Apart from their most common speciality, bees are able to produce many other products that effect more aspects of life than just our taste buds and their survival of the winter hibernation.

Although most cultivated hives are made by the keepers, bees contribute much more in perfecting the hives. Propolis, a dark brown product from plants made only by the buzzing wonder, is one such "finishing touch." For the common bee it is used as an element of "national security," helping as an insulator by filling cracks, crevices, and small holes in the hive, as bees must maintain a hive temperature of 35°C and a high level of humidity to live and function properly with one another. In addition, it helps prevent rodents from entering the hive and disrupting the peace, -- although bee’s wax tends to be used more often on holes big enough for the tiny terrorists to enter. However, if an animal were to infiltrate the hive and die, instead of infecting the very sensitive environment, the bees cover the animal in propolis and isolate it from the hive, mummifying the corpse. The same substance was used by Ancient Egyptians to preserve the bodies of pharaohs.

The human benefits of propolis are vast compared to the good it does for bees. Ancient Egyptians used this to disinfect their battle weapons and during World War II it was used by the Red Army to heal soldiers’ flesh wounds.

Advances in understanding propolis have lead to even more health benefits and even aesthetic ones: the glazed, glass-like appearance on wooden furniture or pottery is made from propolis; it is also a proponent of frequently used alternative medicine, providing therapeutic and antibiotic advantages. Health issues from ulcers to even the common cold can be treated significantly.

According to the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture published in 2004 by the University of Zagreb, experiments on mice with artificially caused cancerous tumours showed that propolis is able to suppress the growth of cancer cells. It is annoyingly ironic, that some people are destined to be allergic to this wonder.

Apart from honey and propolis, bees are essential for pollination of flowers, which every line of botanic work needs. Bees are very active and passionate pollinators, pollinating at every hour of flower-blooming seasons. The earlier and more frequently plants are pollinated the larger and healthier the fruits and flowers will grow. Now, imagine how many crops there are in the countryside of just one country or the number of backyards with amateur crops – they all need to be harvested and for that to happen they all need to be pollinated to grow luscious fruits of their respective "loins."

In Russia, agricultural plants take up around 20 million in hectares that includes sunflowers, cotton, vegetables, and fruits. Assisting in the pollination of the plants, bees can raise the quality of the fruits and their seeds, but also the productivity of harvests by 20 to 30 percent.

They don’t need all that honey… couldn’t hurt to take just a few million gallons of the stuff, if they are already making our lives all the better. In fact, when bees’ honey is taken, it is replaced in part by liquid sugar and a portion of the honey left behind, so they don’t notice the difference.

Pollination causes a large amount of additional harvest, which helps the agricultural economy greatly. According to beekeeping communities, the use of pollination of agricultural crops increases them per country by the average sum of 2. 2 billion dollars. These little insects, working hard to keep their queen fat, healthy, and happy, are completely oblivious to the fact that they are benefiting the economy immensely, the additional crops received from bees exceed the costs of direct production of beekeeping, several times.

"At first it was a lot of hard work," Csaba Varga admits, "serious devotion and on top of it all a lot of money." I find myself expecting him to frown. Instead he flashes a smile. "But after about a year the money just keeps pouring in, of course only if people want the honey. Which they do…" he said, finishing off with a cheeky grin.

Although Varga does not use bees for pollination, but only for the honey, he still manages to make tremendous amounts of money, considering it is just a hobby. Once the hives fill up, he can either make a new box or he can sell them on the market for a large sum of money. The only difficulty with having to start a new hive is finding the bees that left. Varga shared that he must always pay close attention to the different movements of the bees throughout the warmer seasons, so he can know when to go out looking for a new hive the bees make themselves – which is often very close to the old one. And Varga has to find it.

This would be very simple, were the terrain flat and free. But Varga happens to live in a hilly region of Hungary, turning his stroll into more of a trek, hiking up hills, walking across valleys, climbing trees.

"The problem is if the bees decide to start a new hive on someone else’s property. If I climb in to get them I would be trespassing and bees are worth a lot, so why would anyone let me in to get them?" Varga asked, with a look of what could either have been nervousness or a non-chalant gesture confirming the ready money that’s at stake.

Becoming comfortable with the beekeeping business, Varga has recently planted ten stands of one hundred Acacia trees each, which produce one of the most expensive type of honey. With luck, these will grow strong and prosperous in time for even more drones and hives, allowing his harvest of honey to become purer for buyers with more bees working more consistently on the one kind of plant. He hopes one day he can produce enough to sell it on his own, instead of to stores and private merchants, as he does now.

Anything’s possible.

Other articles from this issue