All over the planet the humble honey bee busies itself with a singular purpose – perpetuation of the hive. Highly organised work-forces operate together with seamless efficiency collecting pollen and nectar for their micro-industry, creating the magical elixir honey, which will sustain the colony, most importantly feeding the omnipotent queen and her offspring, throughout the year, especially in the cold dark months of the flowerless winter. At the same time, again all over the planet, many human beings are also on a mission to hunt for bees, harness or host their hives and gather the honey for their own uses; be that culinary, medicinal or cosmetic.
The honey hunter-gatherer’s quest varies from harvesting honey from naturally occurring to purpose built hives, in all sorts of environments; from cliffs to deltas, gardens to abbeys, large-scale bee-‘farms’ to singular hives dotted over a cityscape. …And, all over the planet, one man, Eric Tourneret, has travelled, dedicating his career as a successful, well-published photojournalist of 25 years (his work has been showcased in Figaro, Paris Match, Terre Sauvage etc) to discovering and displaying the types and traditions of beekeeping, honey hunting and honey gathering; his quest enhanced by developments in digital photography to create the most exquisite images of bees and their keepers – their hunter-gatherers in different societies and subcultures, some of which are increasingly threatened by the creep and crush of globalisation.
His resultant body of work, the publications Le Peuple des Abeilles (The People of the Bees, Rustica, 2007) and Cueilleurs de Miel (The Honey Gatherers, Rustica, 2009) have become an important reference to the bee and beekeeping. Eric’s fascinating findings have become all the more important as mankind’s global relationship with this tiny, humble, yet extra-ordinary creature, is on the cusp of drastic times.
Man’s excessive use of artificial and damaging chemicals, such as fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, has become intrinsic within modern-day intensive farming methods, due especially to our obsession with monoculture, in our constant quest for (over)production. This, coupled with increasing disease within the bee population, all continues to weaken the bee, and their colonies and man-managed hives throughout the world. The effect of a significantly reduced bee population has stark consequences to mankind, relying, as we do, on these tiny creatures to pollinate and perpetuate our crops, and therefore sustain our system of food production.
Like a worker bee dancing outside the hive to explain to her counterparts where the best pollen can be found, we can showcase Eric’s thought-provoking journey, as it ‘dances’ around the world, twisting and turning, explaining to us, in stunning visuals, where the bee thrives, who are the hunter-gatherers, how the relationship between bee and man is sustained, and what challenges face bee and man in the future.
Let us follow Eric’s steps around the world, and hear his commentary (in italics); we hope you enjoy and inspired by the twists and turns…
Honey Tribes of Omo Valley, Ethiopia
One of the last virgin spaces in Africa, the abundant Omo Valley in southernmost Ethiopia, has been thought to have been a crossroads for thousands of years as various cultures and ethnic groups were attracted to its natural bounty, and now it is on the cusp of monumental change; bridges, dams and roads are opening up the traditional valley to the world, increased transportation, tourism, and soon intensive sugar cane production. This development will have a profound effect upon the semi-nomadic Bana tribe, who farm cattle and goats and build bee hives in the trees. Bees, their honey and mead-making are age-old traditions for these people. How will the transformation of their valley affect their centuries-old way of life?
Argentina’s Boatmen Beekeepers
From the beginnings of time, and from thousands of miles north of Buenos Aires, high on the Brazilian plateaus, the ochre waters of the Paraná River blends with the azure waters of the Uruguay River in the south. This union forms the vast Rio de la Plata, opening out gigantically into the Atlantic as a huge estuary, and at the mouth is the Paraná Delta; at 340 km long and 60 km wide, it is one of the largest on the planet, a natural puzzle of rivers, lagoons and marshy isles, some floating (purely a mass of tangled vegetation weighed down by mud and sediment), others fixed.
This maze of marshland islands is increasingly encroached upon by livestock farmers, pushed south by the expansion of industrial GM soy farming from the north. This in turn pushes the beekeeper boatmen of the delta, traditional transhumance farmers, further onto the delta and away from the mountains in the north, traditionally used for part of their farming year, in order to find bees feeding on the white Catay flower, and harvest the honey from them. How long until they are pushed so far out onto the delta that their way of life becomes unsustainable?
Fairtrade in Mexico – sting-less bees next door
Stingless bees (trigona scaptotrigona) are native to equatorial zones of Australia, Africa and the Americas, building their hives in hollow tree trunks. However, they can also be found in earthenware pots, as well as trunks, by the walls of houses occupied by the coffee-making Nahuat and Totonac families in Puebla on the foothills of the Sierra Madre, Mexico. This community is The Tosepan Titataniske (United, We Conquer) cooperative, made up of nearly 6,000 families regrouped to market Fairtrade coffee. As well as the coffee cultivation, the bees are managed, literally next-door to the houses – convenient ‘home-working’ – continuing the tradition which historically was undertaken by the women in the pre-Hispanic era. This idyllic set-up, however, is under threat, as the stingless bees are being affected by the pesticides used within the surrounding mono-cultural farmlands and the stronger African bees.
Nepal’s ‘Supernatural’ Tiger Men Hunt For Honey
The Kirates arrived in Nepal from Mongolia in 800BC and Yalembar, the first sovereign of Nepal (cited in the epic Sanskrit tome Mahabharata), was a Kirate. Descendants of the Kirates, and there have been 33 sovereign successors, are the Raï people, settling in the foothills of the Himalayas, 20km to the south of Mt Everest (but still at an altitude of over 2,000 metres).
There are mythical tales of legendary Kirates, known locally as ‘tiger men’, as superhumanly battling with the aggressive giant bee of the Himalayas (as super-sized as the environment it inhabits) to gather their honey the bees have made from feeding on rhododendron flowers growing between 6,000-19,000 feet up, during April, May and June. Raï menfolk are still continuing their ancestral acrobatics, scaling cliffs over 300 feet high on bamboo ladders, without shoes and gloves, let alone the protective suits we are used to seeing, smoking, poking and thus provoking the hives, to release the angry swarm of giant stinging-machines in order to harvest the honey. Superhuman? Yes.
Bolo Kesher Raï is the “Perengge”, the man who gathers the honey. “My father was a Perengge, and my grandfather before him. I gathered honey for the first time at the age of 16 or 17, with my grandfather. There were twelve nests on the cliff face, my grandfather was old and he fell at the fifth one. So, I in turn climbed up and harvested the seven nests remaining. Of course, another man could have done it, but it is our family’s role to gather honey.”
Away from the ladder itself, Perengge’s son, Shimbu, is at a carefully chosen observation post from which he will be able to shout instructions to the helpers at the top of the cliff; they have to move the harvest basket ‘blind’ as they cannot see it from way down the cliff. Just before the start of this hair-raisingly dangerous quest, Bolo Kesher pours the chang (millet beer) onto the cliff’s rocks as an offering, then sharing a glassful between all the workers. This ritual sharing is an attempt to appease the cliff’s spirit.
Then the fire is lit, which sets off a massive attack by the swarms whilst Bolo Kesher chants an ancient prayer, which has been passed down through the generations, to invoke the guardian spirit of the cliff. Then he attaches a rope to the ladder and begins handling the long bamboo poles, whilst being attacked by the swarms. Others, called rebokipe (rebo means rope ladder in Raï), keep the ladder pulled tight, by hanging their full weight from the ladder, to help Bolo Kesher’s progress, and move the ladder across the cliff face between nests.
Bolo Kesher continues to gather the honey, by hanging like an circus acrobat – albeit one blinded by smoke and stung by giant bees – hundreds of feet above the rock below, without any safety equipment; this requires enormous physical strength, total self-belief and super-human composure, as some of these cliffs are names in memory of those who have fallen to their deaths.
New Zealand – Manuka – the treasure of the Maoris
The Manuka is the most prolific tree in its native New Zealand; it grows everywhere, across all the islands making up the nation, from the lowlands up to about 1500m in altitude. However, many Manuka trees have been lost to deforestation over the years, a process of clearing forest, historically Maori lands, for pasture, undertaken by the colonising Europeans.
At the start of the 21st Century Professor Peter Molan, from the department of honey research at the University of Waikato, discovered the exceptional antibacterial properties of Manuka honey. This lab-tested honey is graded according to its UMF (Unique Manuka Factor), which certifies its health-boosting properties, and now New Zealand exports 50 million euros worth of this elixir per year. Today, the Maoris, who own the land where this tree grows, have made apiculture their own, reclaiming their birthright, and creating much needed employment – from the management of the hives, to the processing and export of the honey to Japan, Korea and Europe. Whakaari International’s ‘Ora’ brand of Manuka Honey being one such example.
The Adamawa Plateau, Cameroon – A paradise for bees and disillusioned city Cameroonians
The abundance of flowering trees on the high, lush and moisture-rich savanna on the high plateaus of the Adamawa is a paradise for native Adansonii bees. It is also a land of plenty for a new breed of farmer. Young Cameroonians, disillusioned by the unemployment in the cities, have come out to farm the bush, where agriculture is still traditional, subsistence and chemical free. Part of their farming practice is beekeeping, entailing perilous, yet rewarding, climbing into the trees to harvest the honey; allowing them to sustain themselves, their families, and the sustainable farming methods.
Rural France – monks, monoliths, donkeys, and dung
It is only relatively recently we have been able to understand the mystery of the bee and their hives – the threat of the sting has been extremely affective in keeping us humans at a distance. Domestication of the bees, beginning, we think in the Middle East, has progressed through human civilisation to more familiar apiculture such as that practised in France, compared to the exotically unfamiliar tree and delta hives we have just seen. The Frenchman Réaumur must be acknowledged for aiding this progression with his observations of a glass-cased hive in the 18th Century; derivations of which are still enjoyed today.
These days, although less exotic, beekeeping tradition still has centuries old resonance; monks practise apiculture in beautifully simply wooden hives; monolithic-looking chestnut trunk and slate hives (bruscs) can still be found in Cevennes; farmers in rural Provence use traditional transhumance transportation – donkeys; and resourceful use of local oak, straw and dung to make hives can still be found (just) in the Basque-lands.
Bohemian honey – Romania’s migrants beekeepers
Romania’s 2007 entry into the EU signified a period of modernisation within a country of great rural traditions. One iconic image of Romania is the Romany Gypsy Caravan, complete with brightly coloured painted panels and upholstery traversing country roads. This tradition can still be witnessed, in the form of migrant beekeepers, travelling around the forested mountains of the Maramures, Northern Romania. These beekeepers travel with their hives, coming together in camps farming and living in an extremely traditional way, eschewing the agricultural revolutions brought about by mechanisation and monoculture seen elsewhere in pretty much the whole of Europe.
The sight of wooden shingle-roofed houses, timber churches and picket fences are reminiscent of the ancestral farming culture that make up the man-made fabric of these traditional rural areas, symbolised by the ‘tree of life’ carvings seen on wooden porticos. Yet for how much longer can such a traditional environment support a growing population, with little or no industry to support subsequent generations? The pull of the modern world, the EU and all associated change endangers these traditions.
America’s Migrant Worker Bees – The Nomads of Mass Pollination with a catch
Migrant beekeepers can also be found in the US, yet not in quaintly painted gypsy caravans, upholding a form of simply subsistence agriculture, but thousands of Kenwood trucks – this is nomadic farming on an industrial scale. It is a strange sight, many men in white overalls, lifting, loading and transporting hives of 40 billion bees in 3,000 trucks, all bound for the almond groves of Central Valley, California, in February; not for honey harvesting, but for pollination of the delicate almond blossom.
Californian almonds are a 2 billion dollar, and growing, industry. The bees are big business; with a pollination window lasting about three weeks they can generate up to $175 per hive per week. The pollination industry, this new branch of apiculture, now represents at least half of some beekeeper’s revenues. However, there is a catch to this seemingly simple, big bucks phenomenon – this mass movement and concentration of colonies means bees are more exposed to the transmission of disease – this is proving catastrophic to American bee numbers – as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is wiping out colonies at a frightening rate of a third per year.
A wonderful example of how a beekeeping family can sustain bee colonies, make a living out of the honey and beeswax, and inform us about the importance of apiculture, is the Chain Bridge Honey Farm, in the very north of England. A family business since the late 1940s, acquiring bees from retiring beekeepers, it has expanded over the years, with around 2000 hives over a 40 mile radius. It now has a third honey-house, to complement two others, kitted out resourcefully utilising machinery from local redundant shipyards, producing more than 80 tonnes of honey annually, supplying 350 shops. The 15 or so people employed are local and all contribute to the management of the hives, including construction and maintenance of the hives and machinery, in the extraction of honey and other by-products. A real success story for both man and bee!
Urban Beekeeping – London, Paris and New York
Big cities may be the surprise saviours in the plight of the bee under threat from loss of habitat and chemical-induced starvation. With an increasingly monochrome mono-cultural countryside, devoid of patchwork diversity, and bathed in an invisible haze of agricultural chemicals, cities may unexpectedly offer a better balanced and purer environment for the bees. Environmentalists have been repeatedly stressing in (not so) recent years that a balance between mankind of nature must be restored. As the famous journalist and organic food guru Rosie Boycott stresses, “a declining bee population has potentially catastrophic consequences for the life of Man as we know it. With more and more people living in the cities, it is important to try to find out more about the decline of the bees and to see how we can reverse this trend.” It may be the tiny humble bee, reintroduced and flourishing within the city, man’s archetypal artificial creation, that is the first step on the long road to restoring this vital balance.
In London, the mayor, Boris Johnson, previously stressing the importance of the humble bee in food production and as “a reliable barometer for measuring the health of our natural environment” initiated a competition, funded by the government, to set up 2012 gardens (to mark the 2012 London Olympics year) and 50 apiaries, as well as beekeeping training courses. Londoners were also encouraged to grow melliferous plants (those that can be harvested by domesticated honey bees) and not just random flowers, fruit and vegetables, using the least chemical products possible, to encourage responsible apiculture and make London a bee friendly city.
New York City
In New York City, in a similar time scale, 2008, the New York City Beekeeper’s Association was set up, forming a group of like-minded bee-minded people, established apiarists through to absolute beginners. Again, a highly unlikely environment, proving highly successful in the promotion, management and sustainability of these vital little insects.
In Paris, there are more than 300 hives thriving on the roofs and gardens, as the city is reasonably pesticide-free and provides a variety of blossom. Like Londoners, the Parisians have also become keen apiarists; beekeeping classes subscribed to, and supplies purchased, in record numbers. The Parisian beekeepers may well be contributing to the salvation of the bees; as opposed to an average of 10 to 20 kilos for hives in the fields of rural areas, the city hives can produce up to 100 kilos of honey per year.