Harvesting Honey in a Jungle Paradise

Marcos's brothers house

Marcos’s brothers house

Following Marcos’ invitation we waited for a sunny day and with good fortune met him on the main road as he was preparing to leave for the market. Upon seeing Ashu and I, he turned his plan around, and we walked together to his home. Taking what he told us was a shortcut, we walked down a beaten red earth path and began ducking our heads underneath the large banana leaves providing shade along the way. As we walked by Marcos’s brother houses I was once again mesmerized by the fauna. Though everyone tells me, that the greenness is nothing compared to what it will be following ‘krumpt’ or the rainy season, come September, I can’t help but stare at the bounty of coffee trees with their shiny leaves and bean covered branches, bright purple banana flowers hanging under the basket of growing bananas or even the 2 meter tall cornstalks surrounded by bees pollinating their flowers.

Coffee Beans at Large

Coffee Beans at Large

As we were walking Marcos apologized for not having anything prepared to offer us. It is customary to have freshly roasted and grounded coffee as well as roasted grains and or freshly baked bread upon home visits. However, again through my friend Ashu’s translations, we both agreed that honey was the best offering around, and laughed as we began conversing over our common interests.

Marcos' daughter smiling my spacewomen outfit.

Marcos’ daughter smiling my spacewomen outfit.

When we arrived to his home, his 5 children came out to meet us. Surprising me with his English he introduced them from oldest to youngest. I’m constantly amazed at the relativity of age, especially while in Africa. It is always impressive to see a 3 year old carrying around and tending to their younger sibling. Responsibility kicks in here quite soon to say the least. We all exchanged smiles, and as we began preparing for our beehive visit, one of Marcos’ Daughters tried on my protective head gear and we ended up sharing a few laughs.

Upside down broken coffee pot, filled with cow dung and lit to perfection. Smoke is a beekeepers best friend.

Upside down broken coffee pot, filled with cow dung and lit to perfection. Smoke is a beekeepers best friend.

Marcos began by collecting cow dung and igniting it over a half broken and upside down ceramic coffee pot. Blowing across the hay he used to ignite the generous pile of manure, he was able to quickly achieve the heavy and rich smoke billow. As any beekeeper knows smoke can be your best friend when opening a hive, and as I was soon to find out, even more so when working with African bees at noon on a hazy sunny day.

Marcos standing proudly next to his Modern beehives

Marcos standing proudly next to his Modern beehives

Along with the 19 woven bamboo traditional hives he proudly keeps, Marcos was one of the few lucky beekeepers to receive the nominal training and modern beehive equipment from World Vision. It was one week sooner than he had planned to harvest from the hive, but he was eager to share what he knew as well as practiced with me. We approached the hive from the behind and using a curved 12 inch/30 cm crass cutting knife Marcos began to pry the lid from the box. I was immediately delighted to see that the entrance protecting as well as bacteria fighting resin of propolis was doing its’ job to keep all the openings closed, yet its stickiness and Marco’s tools at hand made for an overall aggressive entrance.

Grass cutting knife in one hand, billowing smoke fountain in the other and a mere blanket to protect against the raging honey bees.

Grass cutting knife in one hand, billowing smoke fountain in the other and a mere blanket to protect against the raging honey bees.

What I have forgotten to mention, is Marcos’ protective wear, or better yet other than a thick wool blanket wrapped over his head and around his shoulders, lack thereof. As he successfully removed the beehive lid, balancing the increasingly more important smoke in one hand, thousands off bees shot out from the hive and began to buzz all around us. Equally as important as a constant billow of smoke when working with a beehive, is a sense of calmness. I like to believe that like dogs, bees sense fear, so despite the constant state of vibration I breath and admire the beauty of the hive. From the inside of my head gear, rain coat, and extended leather gloves, I know it’s much easier than out. Therefor I amazingly witnessed as Marco’s maintained his calm, and began to separate the panels as he worked behind the constant stream of smoke he blew over the hive. A balancing act equal to that of a lion tamer if you ask me.

Look closely and you will see the the individual honey combs hanging from the panels.

Look closely and you will see the the individual honey combs hanging from the panels.

One of the reasons for Lorenzo Langstroths’s invention of the closed panel box style beehive was the effectiveness of independently hanging honey combs. By providing 4 wooden sides to each panel, he could assure that the bees would work horizontally in their honey comb construction and fill one panel from side to side. This panel as a whole could then be uncapped, and the honey could be drained from the comb leaving the wax in place. However, when opening Marcos’ hive, we saw that the bees constructed their combs to their natural likings, and using the top bars as their guide built a handful of independently hanging combs inside each panel. As I stood beside, working from the outside in, Marcos began removing the panels one by one and 4 in all. Using only smoke, he calmly blew off as many bees as possible and set the panel on top of a large and shallow plate. Once all the honey comb filled panels were out, again with the smoke in one hand and knife in the other, he cut the comb from the wood, and then gently set the empty panels back in their place. For the duration of the process I watched in awe as bees landed on and instinctively stung his arms and hands, and not once did he flinch.

In preparation for the rainy and thus plentiful season to come, Marcos finished his beekeeping work by placing a small plastic grate on top of the hive and then placed another panel filled box on top of that. Used to assure the queen bee doesn’t travel upwards, the grate separates the brood nest from the future honey harvest. Over the course of the next few months, Marcos is accustomed to seeing a high nectar production from his bees, and this super, or second level of the modern hive, gives the bees space to make that possible. Despite the fact that he lacks a few basic resources as well as information, the high honey production speaks for itself, and Marcos is strongly in favor of using modern hives.

Carrying the plate with the harvested honey combs we joined his family as well as Ashu, who were hiding from the aggressive bees inside Marcos’ simple home. He pulled up some stools in front of the chalkboard where he taught his children math and with a smile on his face, placed the plate down and began offering the honey to everyone. He was eager to know what I thought, and as I was still beside myself with the experience of opening a hive in the middle of a jungle paradise in southern Ethiopia, I shook my head, grabbed a chunk of honey comb and tasted paradise.

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