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Saturday, 25 June 2011

Liquid Gold

Thwack, smack, whack Our beekeeper goes the axe through the night sky and into the hollow tree. Woodchips rain down on us with each swing of the axe. Eriterial stands on the platform above us and swings the axe with expert control and precision. The platform he is standing on continuously wobbles despite three of us holding it. Excitement, anticipation, adventure and adrenaline flow through me with each thump of metal tearing into wood. In the dim light I can see similar excitement in Elizabeth’s eyes. Slowly the buzzing sound grows louder and louder until I feel the first of the bees land on my bare arm and I jump. Elizabeth, beekeeper and enthusiast, tells me to just be calm and relax, the bees will not sting me unless I pose a threat and they can apparently sense my fear and will sting me as a result. So I breathe, try to relax and Eriterial continues chopping.

Next comes the smoke, Eriterial picks up a bunch of burning hay and stuffs it into the hole he has hacked in the tree. I am now standing back behind the dying embers of the fire about 2 meters from the tree. The embers glow red and make a curious shape, something like the shape of a three-legged starfish. Somewhere on the ground I can hear the distressed buzz of bees disoriented by the smoke and the disturbance of their slumber. I watch in awe as Eriterial reaches into the hole in the tree and starts to pull out great big lumps of honeycomb. He has stripped to his trousers to avoid bees getting trapped between his clothes and his body. No such thing as a beekeepers outfit here. His work-sculpted body is silhouetted against the star studded night sky and yet again I feel the utterly compelling reality that I am in Africa and this experience will never happen again. I watch as time after time, he tilts into the tree, his left leg going in the opposite direction to counterbalance his body. His right arm dissolves into the tree all the way up past the elbow and then emerges with even more honeycomb. This gets dropped in the waiting bucket that Elizabeth is holding. After depositing the honeycomb in the bucket he gives a masterly flick of his arm to clear it of little lumps of honeycomb and presumably, bees. This goes on and on for the best part of twenty minutes until eventually I hear “gwamana”, meaning finished and we all exit stage left to leave the bees recover from our night time raid.

Back near the cooking fire It turns out bees LOVE flour we examined the haul. Both Elizabeth and I are worried for Eriterial but apparently he has escaped with just one sting and seems totally unphased. Men are clearly made of tougher stuff here because there’s no way in Hell I would have been able to do that! The bucket is three quarters full and in the dim light we can see glistening honey, white larvae, sealed up cells containing more larvae and of course a few bewildered bees. We cannot see the queen which is good news as it means she is most likely still in the tree and may decide to stick around meaning more honey in a couple more months. Eriterial, Elizabeth and Gian start to sort through the honeycomb as I ‘supervise’. They carefully examine each piece of honeycomb and talk excitedly about each piece. Gently, they brush off the bees and return them to the bucket while putting the honeycomb in another basin. The bucket will be returned to the base of the tree so that the bees can return to the slightly tattered hive either immediately or in the morning. By the time the job is complete the basin is practically full to the brim. Elizabeth and I look astounded while everyone else seems to just take it in their stride and are just pleased to have the honey without anyone getting badly stung.

Your honey thief in the middle of nowhere

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