It can be perilous keeping bees in Africa. The bees are fiercely protective of their colonies, the Honey Badger is a terrifying adversary and the Honey Guide is a mixed blessing at best. African honey gatherers discovered these things long before early Europeans were weaving Skeps.
My first encounter with actual colonies of bees was when I moved into my new home. In the back of the garden were two large beehives. I viewed them with trepidation as the bees saw me off if I approached to closely.
Someone who I had met had mentioned that he knew all about bees, so I contacted him and he arranged to come and help me. He arrived in the evening, explaining that at night the bees would fly up to the streetlights and not trouble us.
He had brought a smoker, some protective clothing and equipment. We dressed up and went to the hives. We opened the lids and the bees boiled out. They covered us completely, every bee doing her best to penetrate our defences.
They managed this quite easily and we ran for our lives, bees in hot pursuit. After an hour or two we crept back to see what was happening. Most of the bees had flown out into the night and the remainder were quite easily subdued with the smoker.
We removed about forty kilograms of honey which sold in the comb very easily, paying for a proper honey extractor, decent kit and associated tools. I had become totally addicted to bee keeping.
I was allowed to keep a maximum of four beehives in my garden and my little Apiary began to grow. Since they had placed no limit on the size of the hives, I doubled the size of the brood chamber and kept adding honey supers (boxes the bees filled with honeycomb)
My four beehives stood approximately six feet high, standing in jam tins filled with oil to prevent ants attacking the colony. If the ants were able to get into the hives they would strip them clean.
In my neighbours yard, opposite my huge beehives, he kept about twenty pairs of pigeons in a loft. The birds and the bees got on fine with each other and were never any problem to either of us.
My annual holiday became due and I packed my travel bag and headed down to South Africa for two weeks. I had a great holiday and spent a lot of time on the beach, then headed back home again, tired but happy.
My beehives were gone, and the pigeon loft stood ominously empty. I realised that I was in deep trouble. How deep, I was yet to find!
Not many people can move such big hives without leaving signs of a big fight. It had to be a commercial beekeeper so I picked up the phone and started calling likely persons.
My third call found the guy and he suggested that I come to his house and he would explain. When I arrived he described how the council called him because several million of my bees had gone on a rampage through the neighbourhood.
On the way there he saw dogs and cats streaking away, every home was under seige and one old guy on a cart pulled by a donkey were galloping furiously along the road. The donkeys ears were laid back and the guy was swatting bees with his hat.
At my house there were over forty dead pigeons lying in my neighbous loft. Someone had thought stealing honey would be easy but the bees erupted and chased him down the road. When they were done with him they rampaged through the neighbourhood.
He used a hosepipe to spray in the air which brought them down and he smoked them back into the hives and took them to his Apiary site
The Council wrote me a letter inviting an explanation of the events. The bottom line was I could no longer keep bees in the Borough. My permit was withdrawn and I was given two weeks to remove my bees from the Borough.
The guy that rescued my bees said that the best option if I wanted larger scale honey farming would be to site my hives in the wild..
The biggest problem with keeping them in the bush would be providing the bees with water. I made large troughs and filled them with water, spreading wood chips to float on top.
This provided the bees with a surface they could land on to drink and minimised evaporation under the hot African sun.
The next thing would be protection from the Honey Badger. A honey badger can rip a nailed and glued hive apart quite easily and it will eat everything, honey, wax, grubs the lot.
To defend against this I wound diamond mesh fencing around the grove of trees surrounding the hives, three feet high and three feet deep in the ground.
The honey guide is a little green bird that follows bees back to their colony. Then it looks for a human or a badger to show them where the honey is. It can be tricky if two different birds are bringing two different creatures to the feast
The bird must always be rewarded with a handful of grubs. African tradition says that if you don’t pay the bird, the next time it will lead you to a hornets nest.
Well prepared to do beekeeping in the wilderness, things began to prosper until I was managing more than a hundred hives in groups of ten per Apiary
Something that I hadn’t factored in was the local people kept cattle and while out grazing would smell the water and walk toward it lowing. The herd boys would open the wire to let the cattle in.
The bees would go librarian on the cattle and herd boys so they would run away. Then the honey guide would summon the honey badger who would rip into every hive in the Apiary.
The bees would abscond, and the bird and the badger would clean up. Later on the herd boys would come back, find the destruction, take the wood and the wire and I would arrive later to find a grove of trees.
It became a game of hide and seek with the locals, the Honey Badger and treacherous honey guide. It’s hard to describe the joy of integrating with the wilderness win or lose.