The beehives made of logs and currently on display in the Zhytomyr oblast local studies museum hall are artifacts of traditional Polissian folk life and indicate the methods of apiculture predominant in the area. Having seen them on several occasions in museums, the author of this article erroneously believed that such beehives exist only in museums. Traveling recently to distant northern areas of the Zhytomyr oblast, I saw with my own eyes that the tradition of log apiaries lives on.
“BUT HE WHO STEALS FROM A BEEHIVE”
As evidenced beyond doubt by the historical sources, our East Slavic forefathers actively pursued and were quite good at getting honey from wild bees. From time immemorial, bees have built their nests predominantly in the hollows of trees, usually pines. According to a popular version, such beehives were called borts, from bor, a pine forest, while those engaged in this business became known as bortnyks. With time, as Vasyl Skurativsky points out in his book, Berehynia, our ancestors learned that in order to get wild honey it was easier not to destroy the hives but to preserve them and keep the bees safe in their hives. Later the peasants themselves began to gouge out hollows in trees. Beehives in trees soon became the property of bortnyks to be inherited together with the trade by their heirs. Children were trained by their parents how to keep bees. This trade, however, was full of risk, as bortnyks very often met their deaths falling from trees. Thus those dealing in wild bee honey were considered brave and courageous people and enjoyed special respect. Later on, as the trade developed, peasants invented various tools to help them climb the trees, the lezyvo (a narrow board tied by a rope and used as a seat), for example, which made their trade safer.
Various historical documents confirm the exceptionally important role of honey to the relations among Slavic tribes. In particular, honey was used to pay tribute, as a trade commodity and, following the acceptance of Christianity, as a central substance, jointly with wax, for church rites. According to the chronicles, it was an attempt by pagan Prince Ihor of Old Rus’ to levy additional tribute, including one more “log of honey,” upon each household in what later became northern Zhytomyr oblast that cost the prince his life.
Those who dared to destroy or steal honey from someone else’s hives were subjected to strict punishment. As the first Old Rus’ codex, Rus’ka pravda, drawn up by Prince Yaroslav the Wise in the eleventh century, said, “Whosoever steals a bort shall pay a fine of twelve hryvnias.” The same fine, incidentally, applied to murder. Similarly, all three versions of the criminal code of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania enacted in 1529, 1566 and 1588, (let it be recalled that parts of Ukraine were then under Lithuanian rule) stipulated the death penalty for those who stole bees.
In the course of time, peasants began to cut off or saw off wild bee hives from rotten trees or those that had fallen in storms. Thus, beehives shaped as logs appeared. Such beehives were again hung in trees but later log beehives were just placed in glades in a forest. Still later on, in the sixteenth century, according to some sources, peasants started to make log beehives by sawing off 1.5-meter long billets of thick tree trunks and either burning or hollowing out nests for bees in them. Such beehives were called duplianky, kadubky, bezdonky, etc., but the most widely known name for a log beehive, at least in Polissia now, is bort, and those engaged in this business are still called bortnyks. With the invention of the frame beehive in the nineteenth century, the latter began to gradually replace the borts. And log beekeeping would have long been history, had it not been for the stubborn residents of Polissia.
THE BEEKEEPER IS LIKE A MUSICIAN
Beekeeper Mykola Kudria, 60, lives in the village of Daleta in northern Zhytomyr oblast close to the border with Belarus and has been engaged in apiculture for forty years. According to a special survey by the Polissia natural preserve director, Serhiy Phyla, Kudria can claim to be a leader among Ukrainian bortnyks, and not only Ukrainian ones. As Mr. Kudria himself told me, his honey farm consists of 120 log beehives placed on the trees in the local woods, with ten hives near his house. He started his business with ten hives he inherited from his father. He gradually expanded his farm with hives given him, bought from local people, or that he made himself, continuing to learn the specifics of log beekeeping. “I had a great interest in bees,” he said, speaking the local surzhyk mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. “A beekeeper must have a love for the bees, just like a harmonica player for his harmonica, or a drummer for his drum,” he continues, calling this his big secret. For a beekeeper is like a musician: if he has a talent he will make it in the trade.” Some twenty years ago, for every five peasant families involved in log beekeeping, there was only one not involved in the business, he continued. Each log beehive would give up to 20-30 kg of honey a season. At some time in the past Kudria used to go to Ovruch to sell honey but now he stockpiles honey mainly for his children and grandchildren. Due to sharp changes in the temperatures over the last two years, he has lost thirty to forty bee families a year.
Of his two sons, only the youngest, Vasyl, 30, wants to follow in his father’s shoes. The Kudrias, however, also face a major problem for, like the rest of Daleta residents, they have to be resettled from their native village located in the zone contaminated by the Chornobyl nuclear disaster. Kudria the elder plans to settle in neighboring Selezivka from where he can visit his bees. If they move too far away, both father and son believe their apiary is doomed. Even if the bees remain, the hives will be destroyed by looters hunting wild honey. Even now, with the Kudrias living next door, looters vandalize beehives in the trees or drop them on the ground.
“There should be criminal liability for destroying bee families and wild bees should be protected by foresters,” argues Mykola Kudria with emotion (and remember the Rus’ka pravda of Yaroslav the Wise).
Fortunately, residents of Selezivka 18 kilometers away will not be resettled. There are up to ten beekeepers there, mainly elderly. One of them, Adam Androsovych, 74, showed me how he climbs the trees to inspect the hives and gather honey: I had never seen anything like this in my life. You should have seen this elderly man go up the tree in the manner of a professional mountain climber, fix himself at a height of five meters near the beehives using a lezyvo, and finally go down on the lezyvo, like a parachute. Unfortunately, this business involves considerable risks and many a bortnyks fell from the trees to their death. We did not gather honey then — there was not enough honey for the bees to live on and bortnyks never pilfer on bees. Back home, Adam Androsovych treated me to wild bee honey and his own moonshine, vodka made from honey and called medovukha. It was all so delicious! In table talk he complained that he is worried over the plight of his trade to which he had given over fifty years. Adam Androsovych has about eighty log beehives in the neighboring woods. His son, though owning a score of his own borts, shows little interest in apiculture. “Everybody likes honey on the table, but few like to sweat, rummaging around beehives or climbing the trees. I am afraid, soon log beekeeping will die out,” the veteran bortnyk concluded, finishing on a minor note.
WILL THEY REMAIN?
Apart from Daleta and Selezivka, borts and bortnyks could be met in some other villages in Ovruch and Olevsk district in Zhytomyr oblast (especially those located along the Ubort river), as well as in some areas of neighboring Rivne oblast. The number of farmers involved in this business is shrinking with each passing year: too much work with log beehives, little revenue, and no adequate legislation to protect the trade. As another supporter of log beekeeping, Serhiy Zhyla argues, in the near future we could lose our centuries-old experience of log beekeeping and the Polissia wild bees, which show amazing resistance to winter frosts and are well adapted to the local climate and honey gathering. Since wild bees are crucial to the fertilization of the local flora, urgent measures have to be taken to save them from extinction. All this requires adequate funding, he says.
Incidentally, some international environmental organizations have awarded grants to log beekeepers in Mordovia (Russia) to preserve their borts and wild bee population. Unfortunately, for some reason Ukraine did not get any such help. Given an appropriate promotional effort, this unique trade could attract foreign tourists hungry for the exotic to Ukraine’s northern regions. Apart from providing honey, log beekeeping could prove to be a good earner of hard currency.
Yet, the retention of wild bee population or hard currency revenues is not the whole point — by losing borts and bortnyks we could incur not so much a material as spiritual loss.