We always went for honey in the night. The beekeepers of Zogore, a village in northern Burkina Faso, knew better than to approach the hives during the daytime. African honey bees, far more aggressive than their European cousins, stay angry for a long time when disturbed and will chase intruders for a full kilometer. They are the half of the equation responsible for the "killer" label given to the South American hybrid bee species that escaped the lab and spread to the American southwest. So to avoid putting the peaceful West African village through a Wu Tang scenario, we waited until nightfall when the bees were more docile to raid their hives.
For some reason, it always seemed to be cloudy those nights when we biked miles into the bush on tiny paths winding between shrubs and rocks. With no moon, and even the stars blocked by clouds, visibility was reduced to zero. My guide, Alexandre, insisted that we use no lights so he could better see in the dark. I struggled to follow the faintest gleam off his back fender. If I fell behind even a few feet, I had to blindly accelerate, counter-intuitively, or risk losing him in the night.
When we arrived at the small clearing deep in the bush, the other beekeepers, Abdulaye and Moumouni, were already there. Abdulaye shined his flashlight on the two wooden hives sitting on stands in the clearing. A few bees still lingered around the entrances. A faint buzzing came from within. The tranquility did not last for long.
We filled a metal smoker with a smoldering pile of eucalyptus leaves and gave the handle a few pumps, sending out aromatic puffs. There were only two beekeeping suits, so Alexandre and I suited up in thick tunics, netted masks and gloves while the others stood back a safe distance. We only had one pair of protective boots so I just tucked the pant legs into my shoes the best I could.
The suits, smokers and manufactured wooden hives are a relatively new addition to the West African beekeeping technological arsenal. Traditionally, men constructed hives out of naturally occurring materials like grass, reeds, logs, and mud. The favored technique in Zogore was to create a cylindrical structure using dried grasses, then line it with mud and set it to cure over a fire. The fire was laced with secret herbs to impregnate the hive with an odor attractive to swarms searching for a place to settle down. When it was time to harvest the honey, the beekeepers would torch the hive, destroying it while killing or driving away the bees.
While effective, the method wasn't ideal because it meant that the beekeeper had to start from scratch, to say nothing of the surviving bees. Plus, the fire could burn the honey, damaging the taste. Modern equipment addressed some of the problems, but unfortunately it was generally unattainably expensive for subsistence farmers living in one of the world's poorest countries. Some of the guys from Zogore, however, had been lucky enough to secure a grant for equipment and training.
The modern wooden hives open from the top and the beekeeper can pull out slats one by one, slicing off combs that are filled with honey and leaving intact the ones that hold eggs and larvae in their hexagonal cells. The smokers help calm the bees, and work just as well with traditional hives; the guys can now preserve the colonies instead of lighting them on fire. The utility of the suits is self-explanatory, although some of the beekeepers didn't bother. Abdulaye, in fact, went as far as to remove his shirt for comfort in the warm evening air, proclaiming that he wasn't scared of bees.
Alexandre and I approached the first hive. I pumped the entrance full of smoke while he removed the top and started checking the honeycombs. Immediately bees swarmed out and covered our suits. The smoke is effective to an extent—a growing clump of bees congregated on the edge of the hive, just sitting there as if stoned—but many hundreds were still quite angry. The buzzing grew very loud as they crawled all over my mesh mask, just centimeters from my face.
"Keep pumping," Alexandre said. "They are aggressive tonight." Just then I felt a sharp pain in my wrist. I'd been stung, but how? I looked down and saw more bees entering a hole in my glove. Three or four more stung me. Then I was stung in the foot—a bee had found its way into my shoe. I felt another crawling around on my ankle and I didn't know if it had already stung, or was about to. My instincts told me to rip the protective gear off and swat and flail wildly, but, for obvious reasons, that was a non-starter. There was nothing to do but stand still and continue working the smoker. I took another half-dozen stings to my hand and foot while Alexandre finished extracting the honey from the second hive. Most of the bees were pretty zonked out by the smoke at that point. We retreated from the hives and took turns using a small branch to sweep the remaining insects off our suits before disrobing. I shook dead and dying bees from my glove and shoe.
For our troubles we had acquired a number of combs heavy with rich, dark honey. We sampled some immediately, chewing the wax and sucking the honey out before spitting out the remnants. It was shockingly sweet and made my teeth ache.
Beekeeping is a small but important part of the rural economy in Burkina. It works perfectly in complement with tree planting efforts—bees fertilize the trees, people eat the fruit and the honey. It provides some precious antioxidants in a region where most people eat nothing but millet and leaf sauce every day. The industry isn't nearly big enough for honey to be a regular part of villagers' diets, but it makes a nice treat.
But sometimes you have to pay a price. After that ill-fated trip, my wrist and ankle swelled up and I walked with a limp for a few days. I can't hold it against the bees, though, considering how valiantly they died protecting their home from thieves in the night.