Every part of my better judgment was telling me that this was a bad idea and yet, there I was in my flip-flops, t-shirt and rolled jeans hunched low over a hollow log with my axe in hand, readying myself for the first swing. It seemed like only minutes before that I was casually propositioned to go gather some honey by several of my local Paraguayan friends. I had agreed enthusiastically, thinking that standard operating procedure including full bee-working gear (face mask, gloves, body suit, etc.) would be implemented to at least some degree. To my dismay, I was once again reminded of the fact that this is indeed rural Paraguay and such ‘standards’ have usually been left far behind once you reach the places and the villages that even four-wheel drive cars have trouble accessing.
For those unfamiliar with the field of bee-keeping (technically referred to as apiculture), it is the relatively simple and very beneficial practice of housing bee’s in artificially constructed structures. For a skilled bee-keeper, the hives that the bees create and maintain inside these structures can be harvested several times a year yielding several liters of honey (depending on the hive size and conditions), wax (which can also be sold and used) as well as royal jelly (a substance fed to only a bee larvae that will become a queen bee--very expensive and highly prized for its medicinal and health benefits). Housing bees in conjunction with an agriculture system adds an important element to any farm by ensuring proper crop pollination helping to bolster the overall health of one’s crops. For poor rural farmer’s (like those here in Paraguay) the benefits are the same along with the added value of livelihood diversification. With little additional labor and low start-up costs, bee-keeping can provide another source of income while improving crop health and yield.
Which brings us back to my story: Having spent the last month integrating into the rural Paraguayan community of Guido Almada, I have come to know that several members of the community already practice apiculture. I had assumed (wrongfully) that when asked to harvest honey, we would be doing so in the fashion that I have come to associate even with secluded, rural bee-keepers. Such wild assumptions (such as common safety precautions), I am quickly learning, often make one seem either overly-cautious or a fool; just don’t make a mistake and there is nothing to worry about. Right.
After agreeing, I was led into a dense patch of tropical forest. Together, the three of us (2 Paraguayans and myself) gathered some wood clippings, sticks and dried tobacco leaves and placed them into a smoker (called a fumador in Spanish) along with some burning charcoal. This would be our only form of defense from a hive of angry African-ized bees (the stinging bees of South America, for the most part, have been unintentionally cross-bred over the centuries with bees brought from Africa--also called African killer bees) along with our fast feet, however, between these tangled, vine-laded trees, one would really only be able to get so far, so fast. We approached the hive, half-buried and barely visible in a hollowed out log on the forest floor. The incessant hum, that terrifying buzz of a thousand mindless insects could be clearly heard over the collective sound of the jungle birds and monkeys and frogs. I realized that this sickening bee symphony, despite its already alarming volume, was actually muffled slightly by the moist, dense earth covering the log. My mind began to race as I tried to imagine what kind of a collective monster we were about to intentionally agitate.
The first swing was half-hearted, I must admit--I was in no hurry to run for my life. But one can only swing a heavy axe at a rotting log for so long before pieces begin to break and splinter. It was only seconds before the roof of the hive was cleaved open. The hive was exposed. The sound, no longer muted but sharp and piercing, felt almost like a million little stings in itself. Angry bees began to drone above their home, searching for the source of the intrusion. My friends threw huge puffs of smoke into the air instantly confusing the bees but also clouding my sight. The thick, sweet smell of honey and fire filled my lungs as my companion kneeled down beside the broken log, grabbed it with both hands and wretched it from the earth. The cloud in front of me was a mixture of darting insects and smoke mixed with the latent steam meandering through the trees in the midst of our seemingly epic battle.
Both Paraguayans at my side launched their bare hands into the middle of this swarming hive of bees, grabbing carefully and with surprising calm at huge golden cones of honey. After extracting several and only suffering one or two stings each, we began our slow retreat, using a constant screen of smoke to cover our tracks as we went. I was amazed as we exited the forest and I breathed the fresh and comparatively cool air (for it was still 100 degrees outside) that I had not suffered a single sting in this entire endeavor. We stopped to rest some meters away from the forest and began indulging ourselves on the sweet fruits of our labor: about a half-liter of fresh honey, still on the cone.
Inevitably, especially with a wild-hive harvest, not all the cones collected will be honey; some will also be capped-cones of bee larvae. I bit off honey-cone, cautious not to bite off any of these white grubs. The Paraguayans laughed and both began munching away happily at the larvae-filled cones explaining between mouthfuls that eating the young bees provided protection from the sun. I was not in any position to argue and with a prior gulp of courage, I tucked-in with similar zest. The larvae were largely tasteless, their texture obscured by the hard cone structures. The fact that the taste of the sugary honey was still coating my mouth certainly helped it go down easier. As long as you avoided looking at the half-developed, bee-like forms, it was easy to forget that you were actually eating, well, larvae.
And through this all, I couldn’t help but think at the potential in this entire experience to peruse a bee-keeping program in this small community. Here was a family with an obvious interest (and talent) and, judging from their socioeconomic position, a definite need. Its often the littlest things that have the power to lessen the hold of poverty over someone’s life--a small micro-loan here, a project to diversify livelihoods there, really anything that seems possible and beneficial. The honey was sweet, but the prospects for implementing actual change and development in this family’s life were by far much sweeter.