Posts Tagged With: Vrancioaia

What’s the Buzz?

Photo used by permission from Maciej Czyzewski.

If I were a (queen) bee, I can tell you where I’d be hiving out: in the lush, green highlands around Vrancioaia, Romania.

Photo used by permission from Jon Sullivan

First of all, the place is packed with orchards of apples, plums, pears, huckleberries and wild cherries, flowers, acacia trees, and … yeah, pollen. Second, the people here know how to work with bees since there is a long rural tradition of beekeeping. And finally, since Heifer International has started a Sheep Bees & Trees Project to help support struggling farmers in the area, there’d be a million other bees around to adore me.

I love bees. Of all the animals that Heifer gives away, I’m probably most intrigued by these creatures, because they have the most complex social behavior of almost any species on earth (except the species that deep-fries Snickers, holds beauty pageants, and develops hedge funds).

So when we got the opportunity to visit bee charmer Claudia Vatra in Vrancioaia (see map), I was totally jazzed. Claudia started her hives with some intense training and 1,000 bees from Heifer, (supplemented by Google notes from her university-going daughters), and she now has 5 hives but is aiming to cultivate 30.

Each hive produces 15-25 liters of honey a year, depending on the weather (bees don’t like it too rainy, as it washes away all the good pollen), and she sells her honey locally for about $5 a liter. According to Claudia, once you’ve established the hive, it doesn’t take more than a few hours a day to check on the baby bees, smoke the hive to kill viruses if the bees are getting sick, and put in supplements to help the bees grow.

Claudia harvests her honey three times a year: once after the acacia trees bloom, once after the linden (lime) trees bloom, and the last after the flowers bloom. When I asked how bees make honey, things got a bit more complicated.

Apparently, the hive consists of 7 classifications of bees but generally they break down to queens, who produce eggs (2,000 a day, every spring) after having orgiastic sex with a passel of drones… drones who are males without stingers and who die after mating… and worker bees who are non-reproducing females that live a few short weeks and do all the real work.

For the first 10 days of their lives, the female worker bees clean the hive and feed the larvae. After this, they begin building comb cells. On days 16 through 20, a worker receives nectar and pollen from older workers and stores it. After the 20th day, a worker leaves the hive and spends the remainder of its life as a forager. The population of a healthy hive in mid-summer can average between 40,000 and 80,000 bees who go find the nectar, come back and dance vigorously to tell the other workers where the nectar is, collect the nectar and chew it up with an enzyme, then place the resulting honey in the comb.” (Wikipedia)

What they’re after …

Although there is only one queen per hive, new virgin queens develop in comb cells as a backup replacement, but Claudia told me the queen stings all her daughters to death before they can become a threat. Then when she gets too old, the whole hive stings her to death and crowns a new queen. Wow, makes Wall Street look like Mayberry!

Claudia instructing Laura in bee lore.

I was actually afraid to get too close to the hives and all that mother/daughter conflict, so Heifer’s trusty Laura Manciu crept in and took the close-ups. Claudia then took us inside her real house, treated us to some cherry bounce (I suspect alcohol is what gives it its bounce), and insisted we take home some of her gorgeous Romanian honey. No problemmo!

Claudia has already trained and passed along three hives full of bees to her neighbors, plans to learn how to harvest the lucrative bee pollen, and is collecting the beeswax for candles. At the age of 52, she is a font of energy and full of plans for her bees: exactly the outcome Heifer desired, since beekeeping is perfect for older farmers who can’t keep up with the physical demands of regular farming (although Claudia and Ion are still doing that as well).

The real queen bee!

And luckily, Vrancioaia will continue to be a sweet spot for honey-making. Heifer has donated 162,000 acacia trees (acacia honey is the gold standard) to 800 families for reforestation to mitigate the loss of moisture, soil erosion, and provide land stability in this earthquake-prone region. With all the Passing on the Gift requirements, this Sheep Bees & Trees Project will ultimately benefit 1,872 families in this poor rural area.

162,000 of these babies were planted on land donated by the local administration.

Having been unnerved by stories about bee colony-collapse and pollinators under peril, I was wildly happy to see this beekeeping project and be able to report back to all my Heifer friends who have bought bees! I’ve also safely hidden my private  stash of Claudia honey from my husband and children – so I don’t have to sting them to death.

Claudia’s (and her bees’) glorious honey.

Sweet!

Categories: Animals, Environment, Farming, Heifer International, Inspiration, Photography, Romania, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Feeling sheepish in Lepsa.

The day we went to see the sheepfolds of Lepsa, Romania was my favorite day ever (til tomorrow). The impossible-to-spell-or-pronounce region of Vrancioaia is located between the Black Sea and Transylvania, on the junction of two tectonic plates and is prone to earth-quakes, has salty soil from when it used to be under the ocean, and is retouched-calendar-photo perfect.

It’s not bread, it’s cottage cheese.

For centuries, this has been sheep-breeding & cheese-making country but with anemic production of the local sheep breed and new cheese standards imposed by the EU (Romania became a member in 2007 and had five years to get up to speed) that traditional way of life is fading fast. People can’t make a living on the farm, and young people are fleeing to Europe and the cities to find jobs.

So Heifer and the 2700-member Mountain Farmers Federation have joined forces to help these sheep-breeders transition to a free market economy. The plan is to revitalize the Red-face Tigaia breed with Black-face meat rams and fresh Red-faced ewes … and train farmers to meet new hygienic standards of cheese production.

It sounds good on paper, but you really don’t get it ‘til you see the sheepfold in action — and then it’s like something right out of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, complete with hay harvested with scythes and fashioned into fat haystacks that will last through the long, hard winter.

From April til October each year, Ion (John) and Dorica Cobzaru live up in the sheepfold with a few other shepherds and seven big dogs, taking care of their own sheep and 100 of their neighbors’ goats and sheep. They rise at 4:30 am, milk the flock at 6 am, take the herd out to pasture and then make the sheep cheese (there is no electricity to refrigerate the milk so it has to be immediately boiled and made into cheese). The flock will produce 8 kilos of cheese each milking: (at noon and 8 pm), and in between there is hay to be harvested, sheep to be shorn, and animals to be herded and fed. During the night, the shepherds make big fires to keep away wolves, bears and wild boars, the seven dogs sleep around the perimeter of the herd, and John sleeps outside to keep guard against the wily wolves.

For their hours of labor, the shepherds will keep 3 kilos out of every 10 kilos of sheep cheese they make, and middlemen regularly come to the sheepfold on horseback to pick up the freshly made, immensely popular cheese to sell in the local markets.

Chubby little lamb.

With Heifer’s gift of 10 new sheep and 1 new ram to each of 50 families in the valley (plus the support of the local veterinarian and town mayor), the project is producing bigger, fatter lambs that are far more profitable for the farmer. Ewes can get pregnant sometime before their second year and will have 2-3 babies a year for about 8 years. Male lambs are sold at 2-3 months and the fatter and sweeter they are (black-faced lambs are reputedly delicious), the more income they’ll bring to the farmer.

And with that income, the farmers can work together (never use the word “collectively” in post-communist Romania) to improve hygiene standards in making sheep cheese, establish better routes to market for wool, leather, milk and lamb, and make Lepsa a place where a farmer can make a living.

Like a leading man out of a Bernardo Bertolucci movie, John loves the rural life.

John went to Italy three times to work before he decided, “If I’m going to be poor, I might as well be poor in my own country.” His son Adrien, 21, just returned from picking strawberries in Italy and is happy to be back in the fold.

Adrien Cobzaru

With the new sheep from Heifer and a new sense of hope in the valley, maybe all the farmer boys of Lepsa can grow up to be prosperous in their own country.

Categories: Animals, Farming, Heifer International, Photography, Romania, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

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