Slovenia, a land with beekeeping in its genes
It was a Slovene who wrote the world's first modern beekeeping manual.
And Slovenia has gone on to lead the way in raising awareness of the plight of bees, as concern has grown over the health of the world's bee population in recent years.
Beekeeping is a cherished national tradition in Slovenia, with colourful beehives to be found dotted throughout fields, on the edge of forests, in gardens and on city rooftops.
The bee can be spotted as a symbol of industriousness above the doorways of banks and museums, and now even on a special two-euro coin issued by the country's central bank to mark the first World Bee Day on Sunday, an initiative launched by Slovenia and backed by the United Nations.
"Once you start keeping bees, it's like an addiction," Bostjan Noc, head of the Slovenian Beekeepers' Association tells AFP, adding that his family boasts several generations of apiarists.
"We have beekeeping written in our genes," Noc says.
Some 10,000 people are estimated to have their own beehives in Slovenia, a nation of just over two million people.
That's 10 times more beekeepers per head than in Spain, Europe's biggest producer of honey.
The Alpine nation's love affair with the bee stretches back to the 18th century when Slovene Anton Jansa (1734-1773) wrote the first modern beekeeping manual.
At that time much of modern Slovenia made up the Habsburg province of Carniola, and Empress Maria Theresa appointed Jansa as one of the first teachers at the beekeeping school in the imperial capital, Vienna.
"Anton Jansa laid the foundations (of beekeeping) that are still in force today, despite technological advances," Noc says, lauding Jansa's "clear farmer's logic" that has stood the test of time.
And indeed, May 20 was chosen as the date for World Bee Day as it's Jansa's birthday.
Jansa was also a painter and contributed to another aspect of Slovenian beekeeping heritage -- the decoration of beehive panels with colourful works of folk art depicting an array of themes, from the religious to the everyday, such as the country woman dragging her errant husband back from a cafe.
-'Modest and gentle'-
Noc points out that the second most common honeybee in the world -- the Carniolan honeybee -- owes its name to the region.
"The Carniolan bee is very much like Slovenians used to be: modest and gentle," 69-year-old beekeeper Karl Vogrincic told AFP in his garden, in the village of Mocna in northeastern Slovenia.
Vogrincic has more than 40 years of beekeeping under his belt and says it's "a matter of love rather than anything else".
"Beekeeping means rediscovering knowledge that our ancestors already knew but we've forgotten in so-called modern life," he says, opening a door to one of the hives with no protection to put a stranded bee back into the honeycomb.
Vogrincic's interest lies not so much in the amount of honey produced but in the possibilities of "apitherapy" -- the use of bees and bee products in alternative medicine.
As well as the chance to enjoy a honey massage, visitors are invited into a small wooden cabin to take in bee vibrations, apparently beneficial for lung conditions.
Entering the interior of the cabin, one is engulfed by a dense, soporific buzzing emanating from the more than 20 hives inlaid into one of the walls.
An armchair is on hand in a quiet corner -- or you can even take a nap on a bunk on top of the hives.
-'Grounds for optimism'-
But even while coming up with new ways of celebrating its beekeeping heritage, Slovenia hasn't been spared the trends that have led the UN to warn that 40 percent of invertebrate pollinators -- particularly bees and butterflies -- risk global extinction.
Bees help pollinate 90 percent of the world's major crops, but in recent years many have been dying off from "colony collapse disorder", a mysterious scourge blamed partly on pesticides.
Bees are also threatened by pollution, diseases and changes to the climate that have reduced spring and autumn, the periods when bees are most active.
"We will have to reduce the use of pesticides. If we build roads, we have to replace the destroyed habitat," Noc said, but added that the advent of World Bee Day showed that awareness of bees' importance was increasing.
"There are grounds for optimism," Noc concluded.