Already in the Codex Calixtinus or Liber Sancti Iacobi, a 12th-century manuscript, Galicia is defined as «a lush land with rivers, meadows, extraordinary orchards, good fruits and crystal clear fountains; however, scarce in cities, villages and arable land. It is scarce in bread, wheat and wine, but abundant in rye bread and cider, well stocked in cattle and cavalry, in milk and honey, and in big and small fish».
Our ancestors provided bees with sheltering hives made of the available vegetation (cork oak, pine tree, chestnut tree…) in every Galician corner. And it is from where our cortizos, covos, trobos and abelleiras came out to be; these are the different terms used to refer to traditional beehives in Galicia, with different varieties featuring round shapes, hollow trunks or wooden planks, as well as the unique hives from Ourense made with rye straw roofs, known as «colmos».
Always looking for shelter and protection, and depending on the type of rock found in each particular place, the resourceful quarrymen started working on the beekeeping settlements’ enclosures and, using stones and dexterity, they built the apiaries we today know as alvarizas, abellarizas, alvares or cortíns. These are traditional beekeeping constructions from Galicia made in granite or slab masonry with a technique known as «dry stone», declared ‘intangible heritage of humanity’ by UNESCO in 2018. Scattered about Galicia from east to west, we can find approximately a thousand of these traditional apiaries, whose purpose is to defend hives from bears or to prevent the passage of livestock, as well as to shelter them from bad weather or just mark out the enclosure.
Across our varied geography, we have different types of alvarizas (traditional apiaries), which we can classify as high defensive apiaries, enclosed apiaries marking out the access and sheltering apiaries to shield off the inclemency of the weather. This way, defensive apiaries are found along the whole eastern and central mountain areas with the aim of protecting beehives from brown bears. We can find them in Os Ancares, O Courel, Quiroga mid-mountain, in the Ribeira Sacra and some other places in the province of Ourense, such as the Viana and Valdeorras area, or the O Xurés mountain range. Moreover, we can also find them in inland areas in the province of Pontevedra, such as the O Candán mountain range. For their part, the enclosed apiaries found in the south of Galicia feature their own original apiculture and have a defensive function preventing strangers, wild cattle and other wild animals from entering the enclosure; therefore, they do not need to be very high and have closings of smaller dimensions.
The shapes of these true ‘beekeeping cathedrals’ usually have a circular or oval layout; however, they also have horseshoe, rectangular, square or even mixed compositions. These enclosures were erected 1.5 to 4 metres from the ground without mortar, had a variable perimeter and a maximum width of 90 centimetres. On their side, the defensive alvarizas from bears also had a prominent cantilever on the wall and a small door, if any (access was granted by means of a ladder). All of these abellarizas are located in the mountain slopes, close to water courses, and set in forest non-arable land; hence, their hard-to-reach situation.
We also find ancient apiaries of different typologies, based on the weather conditions or the orography and the materials available in each area as, for example, wall beekeeping, niches and larders or hive sockets, and hives embedded in house walls or other constructions, which are very common in the western part of Galicia, namely in the Costa da Morte.
Besides, Galicia also has an impressive traditional wax heritage, as is the case of wax presses with their sinks, curing plots or whitening plots. We find numerous examples in Terra de Montes, O Candán mountain range, O Suído mountain range and Covelo, witnesses of the importance of this industry in Galicia’s history until well into the latter part of the 20th century.