“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best?” and then he had to stop and think. Because although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh.
How true this thinking? How right our childhood friend to appreciate not only the taste of the sweet sticky nectar that we know as Honey, but also to anticipate that very indulgence. Perhaps the modern human is losing touch with the value of this gift from nature.
If I was at risk of doing so, an invitation by Grootbos to spend the day with Growing your Future beekeeper Johan Strydom, learning about the ‘making of honey’, certainly put end to that. Omitting to mention my allergy to bees, I seized the opportunity, arriving with camera on the ready, curiosity peeked, a tinge of anxiety and healthy dose of antihistamines. I was ready to don my bee suit and take a lesson in bee whispering.
There are about 75 beehives scattered amongst the untouched fynbos on the Grootbos Reserve, each occupied by African honeybees which it turns out are more complicated and aggressive than those found in other parts of the world. True to African form, they also need lots of space, which Grootbos certainly offers. Its bee heaven with all the fynbos.
After chatting with Johan about our shared love for all things Grootbos, the Overberg and of course, honey, we dressed in our bee suits, boots, bee veils and gloves – and readied for the job. Among the things we needed were the smoker, empty replacement hives and frames. All loaded in the back of the car, we headed into the reserve to locate the best aviary to harvest from.
Each apiary consists of 4-6 individual hives and is discreetly tucked back from the road. There are wild considerations here that hadn’t occurred to me. I learnt that each hive is lifted from the ground to keep it out of reach of opportunist honey badgers. Also each is tightly held closed with wire to prevent the baboons from breaking in. These precautions work.
We selected a specific aviary where the honey hadn’t been harvested for a few months, and got to work. Johan keeps the hives marked with the date of his last visit, allowing the bees fair opportunity to build up enough honey reserves for themselves. When extracting, always leaving enough behind for them to build from.
Once he had selected the three we would work with, we started the smoking process to draw out as many of the bees as possible. Needless to say this didn’t please them, and they flew out and straight at us. Seeking any small patch of skin to sting; all in admirable defence of queen and property. Invaluable advise from Johan at this point was not to put the camera’s viewfinder close to my eye, as that would make their mission possible.
Once the smoke is blown in and many of the bees have flown, Johan opens up the super and checks on honey quantities. Certain hives are occupied by larger swarms than others; whilst some swarms have higher production levels. Johan knows which we are dealing with from experience after nurturing his valuable ‘charm of bees’ for years. It’s a gentle approach that he practices, one based on true respect. There is no greed in sight.
Removed to the car, Johan attended to each of the frames, brushing away most of the bees, replacing full frames, loading those dripping with honey into the car. Here were our takings. Johan offered me an opportunity to lift the super and I could barely do so for more than a minute. Honey has weight.
From here the supers are returned to the hive and secured with the hope that the bees will continue converting more nectar to the honey we love. Bees have visual recognition and build in navigation abilities to find their homes and it doesn’t take them long.
Apiaries restored to good order, hives secured, honey acquired, we made our way back to the kitchen at the office. Here the supers were offloaded and each frame individually scraped of proposil before being put into the honey extractor.
Back at the foundation offices the honey extractor worked to draw out the thick golden liquid, whilst I contemplated the process I had just observed. The bee transforms the flower’s nectar into honey by a process of regurgitation and evaporation. They store it as a food source in the winter, which makes the best time to harvest it in the spring, when they have plenty else to eat. It’s a delicacy that man has sought since the beginning of time. A flavour enhancer good for the health and can never go off. We have much to the working bee for.
True to their philosophy, Grootbos produces raw honey, simply filtered to remove any wax or bees. It is offered at breakfast, with tea and sold in their Spaza Shop. I bought a couple of bottles as gifts and welcomed the one left in my Forest Lodge Suite.
I stood with Johan chatting, a slice of brown bread in my hand, waiting for the honey to flow from the extractor. When it did, I held the bread there for a while, helping myself to a greedy portion. I folded the slice in half and took an enormous bite into the blissful sweetness. Winnie the Pooh was right. As happy as eating the honey is, as I lifted that bread to my mouth, the anticipation was heightened.
A day learning the art of ‘bee whispering’ from Johan was more gift than opportunity, a lesson in nature’s ways, a renewed gratitude. Never will I walk past honey on a supermarket shelf or at a farm stall without pausing to remember the process and honour the bees. Thank you Grootbos and Johan.
Honey is a Hebrew word meaning enchant. Enchanted I certainly am.
*This post originally appeared on the Grootbos blog.