The content on this blog is mine and mine alone and does not reflect any position of the US Peace Corps or Government.

Beekeeping in the Dark… and a “Model Farm” Visit             

The G20 Team was excited to go to a farm and learn how to conduct a colony night transfer by taking bees and comb out of an African traditional hive into a transitional hive with a top bar coated in wax. It is used to tie the cut-out honeycomb to the bar to better manage the hive.  This transitional hive idea is brilliant because trying to go from a cone tree hive (see pix) to a “modern” hive with super boxes is in many ways too much of a leap.   In addition, the cost of modern hives might be prohibitive for Ethiopian farmers whereas making a hive from local wood and mud is effective. From my own experience, bee-keeping can be an expensive endeavor.

In Virginia, I was taught at Mountain Empire Beekeeping Association’s beginner classes that beekeeping is best on a sunny and calm day because many of the bees are out foraging so there are fewer bees to confront.  The law in Ethiopia, however, requires beekeepers to manage their hives at night to avoid the possibility of working with the race of honeybees that are much more aggressive so much so that the bees might end up harming or killing children, adults and livestock.  The G20 team suited up and many were nervous about being stung though still very enthusiastic.  We had some solar lamps, a knife and we each took turns smoking the hive, cutting the comb out and determining if it was mostly honey, pollen or brood and then, if the comb was promising, putting a hole or two at the top and tying it to the bar with twine.  This process results in a box of managed bees that should be able to survive the experience of having honey stolen so long as enough is left for them to get through the winter or down times.  The African bees I observed seemed somewhat smaller and more grey colored than the Italian bees I kept in Virginia.  Though they were somewhat more aggressive, it was dark and their homes, larvae and honey stores were being cut out of the hive.  Naturally, anyone would be pretty upset if they were woken up at night, thinking there was a fire (smoke), and their home and children were being moved somewhere else.  It was fascinating to start this new hive for them and at the end to try to find the Queen (we couldn’t) and move the remaining bees into their new home.  If we were able to get the Queen into the transitional hive, all of the bees will follow her and a new beehive is born.  Back on my farm, it was always great to get a call from someone wanting a swarm removed from a tree or elsewhere because they were usually very easy to handle, the bees falling in clumps into their new home.  And, people think you are so brave to catch a swarm when in fact, it is much easier to work with bees when they are in swarm mode. They are drunk from binging on honey and patiently waiting to be directed to a new home. In my bee world, we call it “freebees.”

Yes, a few people from the Peace Corps team did get stung and handled having a bee or six get into their suit or being stung on the lip very calmly.  It was difficult to get the bees to leave them alone when we were ready to board our bus and return home because once a person is stung the other bees will be attracted to the scent from the sting and try to attack the victim again.  Over the next couple of days I asked the stung trainees about the stings and it seemed to me that though the bees were a bit more aggressive, the stings did not produce the swelling or awful itch that I experienced more than a few times as a beekeeper or when stung by yellow jackets.  Once I was stung near my eye, my face swelled up throughout that day. I looked like Alfred Hitchcock with a big puffy face and eyes and I refused to go to work the next day. Though swelling is unattractive and often itchy, the allergic reaction to fear is the inability to breathe.  Our Peace Corps trainers had an Epipen just in case.

It was wonderful to see the team get so excited about working with bees.  There is something magical about the process.  I hope that at my site I will to be able to set up a transitional hive and a modern hive to show the farmers the benefits of the new transitional type and encourage the eventual shifting to the modern super (box) hive which does produce the nicest honey and preserves the most bees.  Though honey is not as nutritious as fresh produce and eggs as far as our goal of improving the nutrition of children and young mothers (more on that later), it does provide a source of income for purchase of healthier foods.  But, honey does make life a whole lot sweeter!

After our beekeeping in the dark experience, we had a wonderful day visiting a model farm where an excellent farmer was very gracious to show us his fish pond (small “fingerling” fish) with chicken coops built part-way over it to provide chicken poop food for the fish.  The pond was drained from time to time for excellent water/fertilizer for his gardens which included alfalfa – good for bees, chickens and cattle.  He also had about twenty beehives and he appears to have gone directly to a cross between the transitional branch/mud hive to a wooden built super.  He explained that he was having great success with his honey production and it was bringing in decent income for the farm.  From the pictures I post you can see the old “cone in tree” style and the new style, trainees tasting his bright yellow honey, and the fish pond chicken coop set up.  It was a beautiful day for all of us and we enjoyed having many of the schoolchildren following us around for the morning.  We visited the local farming training center, an example of the local government farming groups we will have the chance to work with during our service. It is fun for me because I remember interesting conversations with my county’s local extension agent who visited my farm when I first moved there. I hope to establish educational conversations with my site community here and there and with some of the 4-H Clubs in the next couple of years.  There may be opportunities to share helpful information and different perspectives on life and farming if the kids could be connected virtually in a learning and sharing project.

I recall a cool bumper sticker I saw on cars in my Virginia farming community that read, “No Farms, No Food”, a message some people seem to forget in our tech obsessed world. I am delighted to spend the next couple of years working with people who work the land and work on animal production. My site community has such beautiful farms, many around a large lake surrounded by large mountains.  Cows, goats, donkeys and camel graze around haystacks while farmers plow the field with large horned oxen preparing the ground for seed.  What an honor to be able to work with and learn from them as well as share some insights from our agricultural team.

My Site Visit in Amhara!

During the seventh week, we spent some time in Addis where our site announcement was held and we were able to meet our counterparts each of whom work for the local farming training center run by the local Kebele or Woreda governments. The site reveal was a topic of conversation amongst the trainees for the weeks prior to the announcement as we each wondered if we’d get our preferred regions.  I was looking for a mountainous, cooler region like Amhara because I enjoyed being in the mountains on my farm in Virginia and I did not think I would do as well in a hotter region.  My agricultural trainers suggested Tigray because it is famous for its honey but I felt being in the mountains would be more for me.  Boy, did I luck out!  My site is near a large lake (not Lake Michigan, but big) surrounded by beautiful mountains and farms. The mountains are more dramatic than the Blue Ridge mountains and as a girl who grew up in Virginia Beach, I have associated mountains and waves since I was a child. I annoyed my parents when travelling to West Virginia to visit relatives by screaming “tidal wave!” when the mountains came in view. And, for some strange reason seeing haystacks always tickles me. It has something to do with the Monet haystack painting I loved at the Art Institute of Chicago. The haystacks are so lovely in the sun and delicious for the cattle.  All of it takes my breath away. Flying to Addis today and riding on a bus over the mountain last week I was reminded that Ethiopia is called the “Roof of Africa” because of it’s huge and beautiful mountains. From the sky, it looks like what I imagine the Grand Canyon would look like from the sky. Obviously, I am very happy to have been placed in Amhara.

When I arrived at my compound site, I was greeted with an aqua green house with the word “WELLCOME” painted over the door as a greeting. My landlord and his family are terrific and have helped me get through a language block that I’ve been having the past couple of weeks. They press me to talk and they only speak Amharic.  Each delicious cup of bunna or shay (coffee or tea) seems to come with a price of at least a few correct conjugations or new words though that isn’t implicit.  The interesting part is that I join them in their living room which has no table or chairs, just mats and pillows to sit on.  We sit together and drink our hot drinks and share breakfast or lunch, often from the same plate.  Sometimes a chicken strolls in and the other day a new baby goat colored white, black and brown, started making its way to breakfast much to the dismay of its mother who could not follow.  Then there is the kitten.  I am going to post a picture (or my friend in D.C. will) of the kitten.  Peace Corps strongly discourages volunteers having dogs or cats because rabies vaccinations (or lack thereof) are a problem here, but I am not a fan of rats either and the cat is awfully sweet.  It is already a compound cat so I am basically a goner for this kitten as it will likely be sharing my breakfast for the next two years.  I think I’ll call him Tiger.

My agricultural counterpart is great and he has introduced me to the local government and farmer training center employees, the police chief, and other important people in the community.  The language barrier has been tough and it is especially  tough because I speak Amharic somewhat better than any of them speak English which is pretty scary.  At one point with a meeting of the agricultural leaders I was able to impress them (a little)by being able to write out some of their names in the Amharic fidel which has 231 letters/symbols. I also sing it badly and they laugh. We all laughed a little when after a fell a second time (despite wearing hiking boots or Chacos) they managed to gently pick me up from where I fell. Walking around with my head in the clouds and mesmerized by the mountains has resulted in a badly skinned knee and finger. My landlords’ family fusses over it and puts vaseline on it as though it were a serious injury. I love them for that. Truly, I am falling for Ethiopia. Two of my five farmers I will begin my work with are women which is pretty great and I loved meeting them. I will be assisting all of them with bee-keeping, chicken management and/or nutritious gardening.  It is very interesting to see their farms, two of which have traditional hives I hope to transport to a new and better home.

I have been given a wonderful welcome in my new community though I do get stared at very intensely.  This community has never had a Peace Corps volunteer and likely no “Ferengi” (foreigner) living here from what I can tell. It is predominantly Muslim and the women dress in long flowing dresses and always wear a scarf on their heads. The men sometimes wear skirts and often wear scarves or a hat on their heads. Ethiopian men and women are some of the most beautiful people you will ever see. I get especially warm greetings from the older ladies.  They kiss my hands and smile at me so I kiss their hands and smile back at them.  They say to me, “Izosh!!” which means “Be brave.  Have courage!”  It is humbling to have them support me in this way. Their strength, grace and dignity impress me and inspire me as well as their wonderful smiles. When I move to my site later this Spring, I look forward to sitting with my compound family on the mats, playing with the kitten and little goat and laughing as the neighbors visit and we sip delicious coffee and tea. After all, it is the best way to learn Amharic!


The contents of this blog are mine and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or Peace Corps.

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