“Mafia just means family. And we look after our family.”
African Honey Bees defend themselves fiercely, and our lives depend on it, as they pollinate our flowers and crops. These tiny bees have been our allies for a very long time, as this cave painting demonstrates.
I listened to a Ted talk by Noah Wilson Rich who analyses honey – for example, Caribbean bees gather nectar from the laurel family, producing cinnamon and avocado flavours whereas Indian bees gather oak – and just one teaspoon of their honey contains 172 different plant species. Curiosity piqued, I sent honey from Gaborone to Noah’s laboratory in America to be analysed.
And wondered whether we could put hives on roof-tops here?
Comparing a European honey bee to an African Honey Bee is like comparing a slightly short-tempered person to a trigger-happy gang-member. Upset an African honey bee and it will quickly fire off a shot that says THREAT! in bee language, and any bees in close proximity will then fire their own shot THREAT! in response.
If there is a colony nearby, there is a full-on shoot-out whilst the news circulates THREAT!THREAT!THREAT!THREAT and thousands of bees are deployed in a fast-moving honey-bee-copter (swarm) to defend the family. This is the swarm response, and all you can do in that situation is ‘get the hell out of there!’ Because by that point the bees will aggressively sting any person or animal in sight.
Of course, they don’t carry tiny guns in holsters or swagger around saying ‘how ya doin’!’ They have a gland near their stinger, which shoots a pheromone into the air – a distress signal.
Local Bee expert Guy Williams describes the smell as a mixture of pineapple, banana and citrus.
‘It’s got this very aromatic scent to it when it’s sprayed in your face by an angry worker bee!’
As an artisan bee-keeper, Guy’s way of working is unique. It amazed me to hear that he doesn’t wear gloves when entering the hive. He says that if he correctly smokes the bees, they are happy and sleepy.
Bare hands enable him to detect a warning vibration or wiggle, so in most cases he can avoid hurting them at all, whereas gloves make it impossible to feel when he is causing distress.
He does get stung sometimes, but can quickly scratch it out before the venom is released, and smoke the bees again to make sure his smell is sufficiently masked, resuming without discomfort.
‘A colony can be fine for twenty years, but is only takes two minutes to go horribly wrong,’ says Guy, and this was certainly the case when two pets from the same family got killed just a couple of kilometres from our home.
Susannah Steenkamp’s dog Basil got stung to death, as did her beloved cat Biscuit. Their beautiful golden retriever managed to pull through, but has terrible scarring all around his nose and eyes.
Bob greeted me with a happy wag, despite his past trauma, and I was humbled that Susannah stressed how the incident was caused, not because of the bees (which she loves) but because of the person who had three illegal hives close by, and had smoked them incorrectly.
This is important, and incredibly noble of Susannah, because people often strike out and kill what is precious through fear and lack of understanding, especially if they have lost pets or loved ones.
To put this into perspective – at least 400 pets are killed in Gaborone by cars every year, and around 5 are killed by bees, so it makes no sense to destroy the bees.
They need to be 15/20 metres minimum from a home, and 10 metres away from a thoroughfare.
Guy says if you are on a small holding, ploughing field, or Cattle Post, more people should have about three hives dotted around the landscape whenever they can.
And This is just one of the sentences he reeled off during a forty-five minute soliloquy about African Honey Bees. I say soliloquy – because is was a voice mail – the longest (and possibly the best!) I have ever received.
‘So other than dehydrated bees vomit, the other way I think of honey is that it’s the liquid crystal distillation of the landscape, because if you think of the hundreds of hectares of dry, scratchy, Botswana bush, arid and harsh, where moisture is crucial – and of the trees that draw up that moisture – refining it and oozing out sugar-water, collected by thousands of bees, who take it back to the hive, where it is further dehydrated by other bees, fanning their wings across the comb, producing a liquid crystal sugar-matrix – which is antiseptic and can’t rot, can’t ferment, because the moisture content is so low – with the ability to preserve things for thousands of years, but can also, you know – be warmed up and put on your toast – that’s an amazing thing!’
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