Some days I just feel like getting under my mosquito net as soon as the sun sets. This day was one of those days. I had found another snake in my house, a really small one, but a snake nonetheless, and I don’t trust a single one of them. I grabbed a stick and killed it myself. Three months ago, I literally ran out of my house screaming. I am now flaunting this as proof that I am becoming a tough Tanzanian broad. I still need to work on hoisting a full bucket of water on my head by myself, cooking ugali, working constantly from sunup to sundown with a baby on my back like a real Tanzanian woman…okay so I have quite a ways to go before being tough like a Tanzanian lady, but I am proud of this self defense milestone. Anyway I found the snake at dusk and at sun down, I was in my net with a book and my stick just in case they work in pairs. About an hour later, I got a call from a friend and he was outside waiting for me to go beekeeping with him. At last! But wait, I said to myself, is my Swahili really still that bad that I didn’t understand that this was the plan for tonight? No matter, I need to get out of my pajamas and into something to go beekeeping in! Ah! All my pants are still wet from doing laundry! Spandex and skirt will have to do.
Off we went into the night with about four vijana (young people) and flashlights. When we got to the trees with the beehives, they started a fire and once it made coals, they blew it out so that it would smoke and not give off much light. One of the vijana climbed a tree to lower a hive and we all turned out our flashlights. There was the sound of breaking branches (he was climbing a tree in the dark!) and then we could hear when reached the hive because the otherwise silent night filled with the urgent hum of bees. I took several steps backward. I was terrified.
Working in the dark, only occasionally using the lamps in short flashes (the bees are attracted to light), they cracked the hollow-log hive open once it hit the ground. The hum grew even more urgent and again I took several steps backward. They dragged the two halves just downwind of the smoking coals. I wasn’t wearing a veil or gloves--hell, I was wearing a skirt! African honey bees are notoriously aggressive! That’s why beekeepers open the hives at night here, doing this in the daytime is practically unthinkable. The thought of beekeeping unprotected with these bees...I was resigned to just observe in the dim light from afar. But after a little while, I mustered up some nerve to go a little closer, then closer, and closer until I was taking out a piece of honey comb with my bare hands. Soon both my hands were dowsed with honey as I placed comb into the buckets. The comb was attached in broad stretches across the length of the log. The honey was concentrated at the periphery and the brood in the center, the same pattern as in any healthy hive. We basically had to just dig in and grab a chunk of comb and pick all the bees off it, hoping not to get stung. Chewing on beeswax and licking the dripping honey off my hands, I was feeling very Pooh Bear.
That night we harvested from four hives, and we harvested everything: honey, brood, pollen, keeping the honey separate from the rest. It was really hard to take part in the destruction of a hive—the brood pattern was perfect and the hive was so healthy, and we just gutted it. In a stroke of amazing luck, I found the queen on a segment of comb that I was de-beeing. I called to the vijana and my friend to come see, and the first one to come over started to flick her off—he thought she was just another bee. When I told them they were looking at the queen, they were amazed. “I say!” they exclaimed in an adorable Anglicism. Decades of beekeeping and they had never seen a queen! They all wanted to hold her, and they asked all sorts of questions about her as she darted around their hands. “How many eggs does she lay? Can she fly? Can she sting? Are all of these bees her babies?” They took special care to put her some place safe, even though we had just destroyed her hive.
I can firmly say that that was the last time that I go beekeeping in Africa in a skirt. Although the spandex blunted many of the stings to my butt and thighs, I definitely learned my lesson. I was stung two times on my hand, as well, without the buffer of spandex. For the next two days my right hand was 50% larger than my left! The sugar high was first to wear off after the adrenaline, then the swelling, but I’m still swooning from my first beekeeping outing in Tanzania.