There’s no secret about the Mugabi family’s sweet success story in the small town-center of Kabale in southwestern Uganda: honey bees and lots of them.
“How did you come to raise bees?” I asked Miracle, a young man in his mid-twenties who was tending to the counter of the Bungoni Best Honey store in Kabale-town.
“Now that is a long story!” he exclaimed, his face splitting into a wide smile. “Honey is my life. My father was a beekeeper and his father before him. Harvesting and selling honey is how I was able to pay for my school fees — from primary seven and on.”
Miracle graduated from secondary school in Kabale and attended a business school in Mbarara. A gallon of honey, he told me, sold at 250,000 Ugandan shillings ($100 US). Honey was also what attributed to his success at post-secondary school.
“You see what I am today is because of the bees and the honey!” he said, throwing his hands into the air.
Miracle’s passion for bees was infectious. I was eager to visit his farm and taste a little of what it was like to ‘keep bees’. What I didn’t expect to find was a whole family operation, full of heart and hard work; his father, sisters and mother, who were clearly doing it for the love of bees and for the ethics, too, not merely for the money promised by honey.
Honey Bees on the Kabale Hillsides
We boarded boda-boda motorcycles and flew through the dust of town to reach a quiet neighbourhood on the outskirts. From that point, it was all uphill. We began the arduous hike to Miracle and his family’s bee keeping operation, through the yellow parched grassy slopes and the nearly ready to harvest fields of rust coloured sorghum.
His older sister, Doreen, 28 years old, was waiting for us half-way up the hillside. She wore a striped pink and black skirt, a soft toque and rubber boots. She carried a pink plastic bucket in hand. I was excited to learn that she was an agriculturalist, too. Doreen had recently graduated with a diploma in agriculture from the Ankole region.
“How many women were in your class?” I asked her.
“We were too few! Women, they fear being in the classes with so many men.”
I wasn’t surprised. From everything I’ve learned about agriculture in Uganda is that women are lucky if they graduate from secondary school. They are farmers from their earliest years in life. They swing the hoe and plant the crops that keep their families alive while men become the formally trained “experts” and extension workers.
No doubt, honey also put Doreen through school.
Miracle, leading us forward, pointed to a stand of mixed forest; of eucalyptus trees and indigenous trees, also.
“This is our bee operation!” he cried with excitement.
My eyes searched for the hives, but I couldn’t spot them. I only saw forest. It was a true forest, not just one of the many “forest farms” you see often in Kabale, typical monocrop plots of fast-growing eucalyptus and pine trees, which soak up a lot of moisture (not ideal for mitigating the effects of a warming climate) and are at risk for bursting into flames during the dry season.
The forest was thick with different levels: of bushes and shrub, vines, flowers and indigenous trees that grew tall and unfurled long silver branches. The hives were hidden to my unknowing eyes, but as we neared, I began to hear them: a steady song of a thousand voices that grew louder with every step closer.
At the forest’s edge, we met Mugabi, their father. He wore a FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) khaki bucket hat and was placing wood chips into a silver hand contraption and lit the chips, aflame. Smoke billowed around him.
Doreen pointed to the flowers around us: small yellow stars and purple ones that burst out like fire. She told me that when they blossomed, it was time to harvest the hives. I knew this was something called phenology — using nature’s cues for knowing when to sow, or harvest — a traditional farming technique.
The Hum of the Hives – A Climate Change Solution
With some childish anticipation, I climbed into a bee keeping suit: a khaki coloured suit made of a canvas-like material that zipped up to the chin. Mugabi gently lifted the large astronaut-like ‘hat’ over my head and zipped me up. I had a fond flashback to my own father, zipping me into a snow-suit as a young child, except that the suit wasn’t to protect me from the sting of snow and ice, but the sting of thousands and thousands of bees.
Mugabi carried the smoke contraption and I followed him into the bush. He didn’t wear a suit, only a pair of long rubber gloves that went up to his elbows. The bees knew him well, I imagined, as Mugabi also knew the hum and rhythm of the bees.
Suddenly I saw the hives. They were easily camouflaged by the forest’s cover; homemade and woven with banana fibre and packed with a clay and lime mixture. They were many — over 200 in one forest plot. It was no wonder that the forest was left to grow wild and abundant. No one would dare set foot into a place protected by the bees. Not a cow, not a child looking for firewood; nor a man looking for wood to build his house. It reminded me of what my friend, Alphonse, said about the value of bees; that bees are a “climate change solution” of sorts. Forest cover won’t be cut down if there’s protection from bees, not nearly as fast as it would, that is, without them.
We crouched by the hive and the bees quickly became aware of our presence and hummed loudly with aliveness. Mugabi pumped the smoke contraption into the open end of the hive and the bees exited, flying around us, some landing on his bare skin and my thick suit. He gently wiped the honeycomb clean with a bundle of green leaves tied together at the stems, before removing the comb into the pink bucket. It was a thrill to be so close to the bees, to peer my covered face inside their home. Their hum wasn’t angry; it was industrious. Mugabi’s confidence was inherent and I eventually relaxed amongst the bees.
He pointed out the larger bees — drones — large male bees responsible for mating with the queen. They were harmless, without stingers, and did their job when required but otherwise died off. They were seasonal. I was intrigued to learn that the worker bees were all female; they were smaller and without capacity to reproduce, like their all mighty queen. They built the honeycomb and kept her and the entire hive alive. They worked year round, at times, rebuilding the hive from a tiny piece of honeycomb.
Nature’s female species never fail to amaze, right?
The Honey Harvest
After we retreated from the forest, Doreen scooped some of the honeycomb onto the lid of the bucket and we ate from it like a generous serving plate. I dipped my fingers into the comb, tore away a piece and rushed to stuff my stuck fingers in my mouth, sucking off the dripping honey. It was the sweetest honey, the “best honey” (as Mugabi claims) I had ever tasted. I even ate a developing ‘worker bee’ (in its developing, stingless form) for a little bit of value-added protein to accompany the honey’s golden sugar rush.
“I rarely get sick anymore,” commented Doreen, helping herself to a handful of honeycomb and drone larva, fat white worms.
Honey, of course, isn’t only a sweetener. It also strengthens one’s immunity and is a natural remedy for sore throats, colds and allergies.
“I try to get stung at least twice every year!” exclaimed her brother, Miracle.
It’s true that some physicians even recommend bee sting therapy (apitherapy) which contains bee venom to treat people with arthritis, MS, asthma and even — get this — premenstrual syndrome. (Noted: the next time there’s a full moon, I’m walking straight back into that forest without a suit on).
Honey on the Home Front
After the harvest, we sloped down the hills into the Mugabi family’s neighbourhood and I was introduced to the Queen Bee of their own family, their mother and Mugabi’s wife. She was a large woman with a wide smile. She wore a white apron and ushered us into their comfortable front living room. She had prepared another honey feast — as though we hadn’t already gotten our sugar fix — with a huge gallon of honeycomb and small glass bowls of honey laid out on the wooden table. The Queen showed us how she sieved the honey through cloth mesh to separate the liquid from the comb.
Olivias, her daughter, a woman in her early twenties, led me behind their backyard into a fenced off area. They had constructed a bee house; uncommon in Kabale, but a new way of maximizing honey production in a small space. I was impressed. They had two shelves inside the house, stacked with over fifty homemade hives.
“These bees know us well now,” Olivias explained. “We don’t need to wear suits when we harvest.”
“They’re like your family, right?” I asked playfully.
She smiled and laughed at my words — though we both know it was true. The honeybees were like the Mugabi family’s extended family: a network of a thousand aunties and uncles at work for the collective good.