Friday, October 7, 2016

Country Bee, City Bee

The way Philippe Huau and Jean Francois Mallein handle bees is mesmerizing. They are methodical, almost meditative. Often the only sound I hear above the hum of buzzing bees in their beeyards is an occasional guttural sigh of regret if ever they crush or damage a bee. Mostly they don't. 

Over years of visiting their collaborative queen rearing operation in southern France, my daughter and i have learned to trust their mostly Buckfast bees, which are among the most docile and productive on the planet. We now work without veils, gloves, or even long pants, enjoying the sunny afternoons in the sunflower-strewn countryside. We can feel the breeze of bees' wings near our ears--or the curious crawl of their feet on our forearms--without any alarm (photo of Jean Francois right, by Austin Martin).

To me, it is a dream come true. The U.S. Peace Corps taught me to keep bees in the region of Bukavu (then Zaire), and deployed me in the Central African Republic, with hundreds of hives of Apis mellifera adansonii to monitor. Those bees are far more defensive. That means you spend more time running crazily through underbrush trying to lose the cloud of them that are after you than you do watching their work or tasting their honey (think winnie the poo...but more deadly). For Peace Corps me, it also meant a lot of fat lips, swollen eyes, and itchy fingers or ankles after evenings out with the bees. They seemed expert at finding ways in around the edges of my veil, gloves, socks and shoes. When i think of all the bees that stung me--each one that died to defend their community from my blundering interest in their inner workings--I feel strangely grateful. 

What i should feel is embarrassed.  I looked like I belonged in a P4 containment lab, or a some NASA craft, with all my light colored protective gear covering every square inch of my flesh. The beekeepers i worked with would bother the bees only to harvest honey, and then shimmy up into trees half naked, moving lighting fast with a burning torch of particular grasses prone to confuse or sedate the bees, but ready to burn them if things got out of hand.  I imagine when they think of me they feel amused, for I was the sting magnet--contrasting with the darkness in my white cotton, slower to move through the landscape, sweaty and scared.  But i was hella good natured about it. You have to hand it to Americans for that. When i think of themi feel awe (and of course, concern...many have had to give honey and other food to militias at gunpoint in recent years, or have had to abandon their bush beekeeping altogether for fear of being kidnapped, or worse--if only Americans weren't implicated in the political economies that have armed so many Africas so disastrously). But I digress. 

Today on It's Hot in Here, we'll be talking about a different kind of beekeeping. Not out in the sudano guinean plateaux, nor in the medieval villages of rural France, but right smack in the middle of downtown Philadelphia, city of brotherly love, and bee lore. We'll be talking to Don Shump, a city guy who has seen his share of country beekeeping in Pennsylvania, too. We want to have a conversation about the different cultures of keeping bees that span farms and towns (Photo of Don, left, from his website, accessed October 7 2016). 

With the first bees ever making it onto the endangered species list this month, those of us behind the radio show want to keep on having the pollinator conversations; you can find some from our archives about urban beekeeping in Detroit,  and about wild bees on Michigan farms, along with more info about Jean Francois Mallein and Philippe Huau

Wish JF and Philippe were here this evening, to sit down with Don around a glass of Pastis. I know we'd talk of the politics of selective breeding in bees...does colony collapse disorder warrant such blatant manipulation of nature? Do farmers who need their crops pollinated see the answer to that differently than the boutique beekeepers of urban parks and rooftop gardens? 

Tune in to learn more, and start your weekend with a little Friday afternoon us live at (or get the fab new app for that from the apple store). 

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