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Lithuanians and Bees

This post is dedicated to one of my grandnieces, whose middle name is Austėja, and whose birthday is tomorrow. Austėja remains consistently in the top 10 most popular girls' names in Lithuania.

During my 2003 visit to Lithuania, my pusbrolis Vidmantas brought my sister, Vincenta, and me to the bee museum. The photographs which follow are by me; the commentary is by Monika Grinevičiūtė ( ): The Museum of Ancient Beekeeping is located in Stripeikiai village – the oldest community in the whole Aukštaitija National Park, known from the middle of the 15th century. The museum there was established in 1984, by the beekeeper Bronius Kazlas. The museum is divided into four zones, presenting different beekeeping traditions throughout the years. Also, the museum invites visitors to participate in one of the nine education programs. In the first zone, the culture of beekeeping in tree hollows is presented. The second zone consists of an exhibition of hives used until the 20th century. The third zone shows the beekeeping as it is today and the fourth zone presents sculptures which reflect Lithuanian beekeeping traditions.

Beekeeping in Lithuania started to thrive from the 16th century and began with the beekeeping in the natural tree hollows. Later on, the beginning of the 20th century brought innovation, and people started using beehives.

2003: Vincenta and Vid at the bee museum

2003: With a friend at the bee museum.

2003: Bee Queen and a disciple.

2003: Another bee queen.

Lithuanians don’t speak about bees grouping together in a colony like English-speakers do. Instead, the word for a human family (šeimas) is used. In the Lithuanian language, there are separate words for death depending on whether you’re talking about people or animals, but for bees – and only for bees – the former is used. And if you want to show a new-found Lithuanian pal what a good friend they are, you might please them by calling them bičiulis, a word roughly equivalent to ‘mate’, which has its root in bitė – bee. In Lithuania, it seems, a bee is like a good friend and a good friend is like a bee.

In Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city, I spoke to Dalia Senvaitytė, a professor of cultural anthropology at Vytautas Magnus University. She was skeptical about my bee-worshipping theory, telling me that there may have been a bee goddess by the name of Austėja, but she’s attested in just one source: a 16th-Century book on traditional Lithuanian beliefs written by a Polish historian. It’s more likely, she said, that these bee-related terms reflect the significance of bees in medieval Lithuania. Beekeeping, she explained “was regulated by community rules, as well as in special formal regulations”. Honey and beeswax were abundant and among the main exports, I learned, which is why its production was strictly controlled.


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