Posts Tagged With: Bees

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.


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

African Gothic

Because I can’t WAIT to get started on this blog, even though my first official trip isn’t until January 22 when I leave for Guatemala, I’m writing this post from my Heifer Trial Run in Uganda, in November 2011…which was amazing!

Augustine and Anna Turyamyomwe are part of the same Heifer International Kinkizi Piggery Project as Ruth, whom I wrote about in the last post. Augustine is tall and dignified, with perfect posture, a serious mien, and a dazzling smile. Anna is rather shy, but with a penetrating gaze when she talks.

Anna and her daughter Kenema Berina

Like most families in Uganda, Augustine and Anna have lots of children: 3 boys and 3 girls. Before the Heifer piggery project, they had a plot of land but it was barren, and they never seemed to be able to get ahead of their immediate needs of putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads. Paying their children’s school fees (about $250/year per child) was a daunting hurdle every year.

Neat as a pin: the latrine, animal sheds and utility rack!

But in the Heifer trainings, they learned some lessons that would change their life. They constructed the sheds necessary to keep their pigs robust and reproducing like .. well, rabbits. They learned to dig a pit latrine far from the house and to grow bananas and nutritious crops like napia grass, that would keep their pigs in the pink of health. And of course, the pigs’ manure could be used to fertilize coffee, beans, and pawpaws that would also be sold for income.

Once the door of possibility opened for Augustine & Anna, they added their own ingenuity, creativity and drive. From raising pigs, coffee and fruit, they branched out to bees. Augustine invented a clever bamboo beehive that he used to coax even more honey out of his hive – and then produced dozens more to sell in the village.

Augustine & Anna's house (new wing is on the left)... see the bees painted on the wall above the bamboo hives!

With the money he and Anna have earned from their pigs, bees, coffee, and bananas, the family is sending all the children to school, and their oldest to university. Augustine was able to bring his mother to live with the family and give her a bed of her own. And they’ve also been able to make a dream come true and build a second wing on their house.In the sitting room, as he and Anna are proud to relate, every member of the family has a place to sit.  They even have a radio (their second most prized possession, besides the Bible).

Sitting in the new sitting room (with the Bible and radio).

“The new wing of our house comes from the Heifer piglets,” says Anna, as George, the Heifer extension worker, and I follow Ugandan protocol and gravely sign our names into the Guest Book that every home, no matter how humble, possesses.I think of my name living on in that simple paper notebook, with its lined columns and beautiful formality. I think of Augustine and Anna sitting proudly in their plain wooden chairs, listening to the radio in this room with their children. And it makes me happy beyond expression that I was here, and I got to sign my name.

Categories: Animals, Heifer International, Poverty, Uganda | Tags: , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

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