African Bees: A Bad Rep Doesn't Include Honey

The African bee has the reputation of being more aggressive, and more deadly, than any other bee in the world. But farmers there know that the honey the bees produce is worth a million stings.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

(Soundbite of bees)

Allergies would be the least of your concerns if you heard this sound, the sound of killer bees in Africa. The African bee has the reputation of being more aggressive and more deadly than any other bee in the world. But that doesn't stop farmers there from the age old tradition of beekeeping. Hives are everywhere on farms across the continent. That's because farmers know that the honey their bees produce is worth a million stings.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports from Kitui, Kenya.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Josefad Indileva Congo(ph) is fit to be tied. He doesn't speak much English. In fact, he doesn't speak much at all, but his whole body says he's fit to be tied.

He's got nine hectares here in the semi-arid reaches of western Kitui, where he farms maize and beans. He's got a greedy cow that likes to ramble through the field, randy goats who spend most of their days in various stages of ecstasy, and some headstrong ducks who stand in the middle of his path and refuse to budge. But his wife still seems to like him and the children will follow him anywhere, all 11 of them.

Mr. JOSEFAD INDILEVA CONGO: (Speaking foreign language)

THOMPKINS: Congo shouts. He throws things at the goats. He rats out the cow and gets it put back where it supposed to be. But there is one part of the farm where he dares not cause a raucous. Congo is quick and with skin the color of dark cane syrup, he's pretty to look at. But his lanky frame can't outrun half a million honeybees.

(Soundbite of bees)

THOMPKINS: This is the sound of soldier bees. They patrol the 16 hives that Congo has in his aviary. Bee experts call them soldiers because they're on a constant state of red alert. There are 16 queens to protect here and 30 to 40,000 worker bees per hive. So the soldiers have a big job. They're the first to face whatever form trouble takes; then the rest of the bees follow. And when they're ready for combat, watch out. They don't know from mercy.

The best time to harvest honey is at night. That's when the bees are as calm as they're ever going to be. So here, as the dusk settles over the farm, Congo, four of his kids, two smoke-pumping devices and a honey expert head down the hill to check out the hive. Congo doesn't say much.

Some of the modern hives, like the ones Josefad Congo has, look like old wooden crates for soda pop. But they have lids. They're dripping from the bottom corners with bees and honey. David Matunga(ph) is the honey expert for a Kenyan-based outfit called Honey Care Africa. He says the sight of bees dripping and dribling from the hives is a good sign.

Mr. DAVID MATUNGA (Honey Care Africa): One thing of the hives having honey is that the bees will sleep outside from the - just to hang outside the hive to show that there's no space inside. We are now smoking...

Mr. CONGO: (Unintelligible)

Mr. MATUNGA: ...to keep away the bees.

THOMPKINS: Congo is not wearing a bee-keeping suit and neither are the kids. They can't really afford them. But the honey that collects inside these hives amounts to 10 percent of the farm's annual income. So suit or no suit, gloves or no gloves, he's going in.

(Soundbite of bees)

THOMPKINS: Okay, not just yet.

Mr. MATUNGA: The hives have honey, but (unintelligible)

THOMPKINS: David Matunga has been doing this for so long that he thinks nothing of a bee sting, or two, or three. In point of fact, his beekeeper suit has a hole in it. So when he says it's too dangerous to disturb these maniacs, and it really is too dangerous, but Congo gallantly offers an unwitting reporter another sneak peak at the hive.

Mr. CONGO: You want to see?

THOMSKINS: Yeah, as long as they don't kill me.

Mr. CONGO: You want to see? No, no.

(Soundbite of bees)

THOMPKINS: Picture so many bees that it's hard to tell one from another. Picture them vibrating. Picture them turning around slowly. Okay, now picture standing in front of the hive naked. That's right, naked.

Congo and most of the people who live in this area are Kamba, an ethnic group indigenous to Kenya that is known for beekeeping. And for generations the Kamba did this kind of work high in the trees and in the nude.

Mr. MATUNGA: You know, when you are naked, bees don't sting you. So beekeeping was left for men.

THOMPKINS: Stinky men. That's because bees mistake store-bought perfumes, deodorants and deodorant soaps for their queen's pheromones. And those are the pheromones that make them want to attack. Nowadays, with modern beekeeping techniques and bee suits, of course, women are able to harvest with the best of them. But one small step for womankind here has undercut yet another old tradition in Kenya.

Men used to brave angry bees not only for their livelihood but also to court women. Men routinely gave honey to their perspective in-laws as part of the bride price. After all, if a man is willing to climb into a tree naked and harvest honey, chances are he really wants to get married. Again, David Matunga.

Mr. MATUNGA: Mostly, this honey's used to make traditional beer, which is taken by the old men, so that as you take their daughter they're not aware. They are drunk.

THOMPKINS: Josefad Congo took 10 kilos of honey to his wife's parents when he proposed.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Kitui, Kenya.

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