It assumes the reader has a basic understanding of beekeeping which you may lack, though I'm not sure there's really even a lot things here that would be confusing without that background.
I may or may not edit this to reflect ongoing changes, though obviously thats a secondary priority to the original word file I'm working from. EDIT: okay the most up-to-date version is here as a google doc. I added snorting camels ;)
I'm crossing my fingers its not too traveloggie or overwrought for them.
There's a few things like thoughts to myself in italics, but that formatting was lost in the cut paste and I'm not going to stress about fixing it here. There will be a few notes to you readers in square brackets.
Yes I don't really introduce myself or give full context of like, where I am in life. I dislike to do that. Its a style thing! (You can still tell me if you think my omission is awful).
And of course in the magazine it would be accompanied by some of my photos which will illustrate some of the things mentioned.
If you were to follow the ancient Silk Road east out of Europe across a thousand miles of grassy plains through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, north of Afghanistan and south of Kazakhstan, the “Mountains of Heaven” (Tian Shan) would rise up like a serrated wall before you. You would journey into their imposing embrace in the fertile Fergana Valley, at the end of which lies the 3,000 year old city of Osh, under a rocky outcrop noted in ancient sources as the “stone tower.” Once, snorting camel caravans had stopped here to prepare to cross the mountains, now it is dusty and post-soviet, full of crumbling monuments and grey apartment blocks. A statue of Lenin still graces a central square, ["gesturing with the hand of Ozymondias" or am I getting overwrought here?]</i> but leaving town towards the mountains you pass a prouder more modern statue of Kyrgyz folk hero Manas astride his horse holding his sword valiantly aloft. I came into Osh by air, but then followed the approximate route of the silk road for two more hours by car up winding roads surrounded by increasingly large green hills, occasionally waiting for shepherds on horseback to move their sheep off the road, until I came to a village named Kenesh beside the icey Kara Darya river.
The river valley seemed stark and empty in the cold of early Spring. Other than the village and river there was nothing to be seen but grass and distant herds of sheep or horses. The Tian Shan mountains looming at one end and the Fergana Valley at the other. The village itself consisted of a smattering of dull grey houses often with cheery red or blue hand-carved wooden scrollwork along the eaves. Each house had its own yard delineated by a rustic fence of rough branches, and each yard contained a kitchen garden, some fruit trees in the very beginnings of blossom, the family horses and maybe a cow or two. Some sheds and barns were actually thatched. Arriving at my host's house, I walked past a row of strangely large beehives set under some cherry trees resplendant with blossoms, I had arrived at my destination. We no longer live in the days of Bactrian camels on the silk road but still it took me 44.5 hours to fly from Melbourne to Canton to Paris to Istanbul to the Kyrgyz capital at Bishkek. Snow storms had blocked the passes to get from Bishkek to Kenesh so it took one more flight from Bishkek to Osh, and here I was, exhausted. It was March 2016, and I had traded the onset of Autumn in Australia, where I'd been living, for two weeks in the crisp beginnings of Spring in Kyrgyzstan.
After this very long and arduous journey I was excited in the morning to have a look at those hives and see what the situation was. With the several trainees assembled in the flowery yard, we went to inspect the beehives under the cherry trees … only to find every single one full of dead bees. Freshly piled on the baseboard, diagnosis: recent and sudden. It would seem that in preparation to not have an embarrassing amount of varroa mites when the “bee expert” arrived, they had given them an extra strong dose of miticide the day before I arrived. I mightily facepalm and look to the sky, thinking of all the USAID money that went into getting me to this remote village, to say nothing of my volunteered time. Welcome to aid work.
This project was one of many put on by a non-governmental organization with the inspiring name of ACDI-VOCA. The funding comes from United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through their farmer-to-farmer program.
So then let's start talking about proper dosage and integrated pest management. What miticide do they use? The locals shrug, they don't know. Well, show me the container? Oh it's all written in Chinese. We're off to a fantastic start here.
Soon, however, we were back in business, of a sort, because a short walk or horse-ride to the other side of the village and there was an older villager with dozens of hives full of live bees under some leafy trees by a gorge. These hives, like the dead ones, consisted of huge rectangular wooden boxes like steamer trunks. The frames were much bigger than our “deep” frames and the hives contained about 20 frames each, all in a horizontal line like a topbar hive with frames. My understanding is that during winter they'd use dividers to pack in three individual hives of six (giant) frames each per box, and, during spring and summer they lug these massive chests up to the flower covered mountain slopes and shift the frames so each hive is in its own box without dividers.
It can be tempting, when one learns of a system so different, to start evangelizing the beekeeping innovations of the Reverend Langstroth as they have become canon to us – they use the same knowledge of beespace and frames, its just not our orthodox interpretation of box dimensions [I really wanted to insert an "eastern orthodox" pun here but it wasn't fitting easily and anyway it would falsely imply the locals are Eastern Orthodox rather than Muslim as they are]. But maybe this system works better for them in these conditions. They are high altitude (the mountains are essentially the northern arm of the Himalayas), and have cold snowy winters, so maybe combining three to a box like this is what they must do. On any account, I don't want to be that guy telling everyone to do things my way, so I listen intently and observe, and then by way of sharing I describe the langstroth hives I use. Maybe they'll be interested in the ease I describe of moving boxes and adding supers … but then again they don't need to remove supers to look at brood, maybe they think I'm the one who is backwards. They do tell me they have a type of hive like I'm describing, with boxes on top of boxes, which they call the “corpus” hive. When I later encountered it, however, I found it uses supers that are absolutely massive (see photo), such that one person would probably struggle to lift one alone, which kind of achieves the worst of both worlds.
The bees themselves I found to be incredibly docile, as if they had never received the memo that stinging was a thing they could do. The beekeeper applied just the slightest wiff of smoke, and no bee ever gave anyone even an aggressive buzz. There were light head veils available which on this occasion one non-beekeeper donned, but most of the other non-beekeeper family members and villagers who my presence had attracted were at ease and confident in the bees' non-aggression, crowding casually right around the open hives. I never saw a full suit in all my travels in Kyrgyzstan. One piece of headgear I did see a lot was the distinctive Kyrgyz felt hat known as a “kalpak,” that forms a tall dome or miter above the head. I was quickly gifted one and though it felt silly at first was soon un-self-consciously wearing it all around the country (and then before leaving the country picked up half a dozen because all my friends clearly needed one).
With half the beehives in this village dead, and not nearly as many beekeepers to work with as I was led to expect, I looked around this remote wind-swept place, shivering, and wondered how I could make it worth the trouble. I had an interpreter, a young woman named Nurzat on her first interpreter gig. She was clearly anxious about whether she'd do it well enough but in fact she really went above and beyond. Realizing that we didn't really have much to do out here in Kenesh, she somehow lined up a whole slew of beekeepers for us to meet down the valley by the larger town of Kurshab. I really don't know how she did this since she wasn't already plugged in to the beekeeping community, but I couldn't praise her enough in the final report.
We caught a ride with the brother of the village headman, who was headed in to Osh. Back down the valley (but we had to proceed up-valley first, because the downriver bridge had been swept away years ago), down to Kurshab, a slightly larger town just where the river met the Fergana Valley. In this town Nurzat's in-laws had a house, it was a nice house, but notably there was a yurt in the yard (or a “yurta” as they seem to call them). I have found the Kyrgyz to be practically allergic to being indoors, and to love their traditional yurtas. Even with highs in the fifties they would take most meals at a table outside happy and oblivious to my chattering teeth. The yurta, the traditional dwelling of their nomadic ancestors, they fondly hang on to and I noticed many houses in town had a yurta in the yard. Later as my perambulations took me further into the hills I would see that many herdsmen still stayed in yurtas while up in the high hills and mountains and probably many beekeepers too – the beekeepers I met with nearly all had a house in town surrounded by their hives but took them up into the mountains for summer.
Because of a risk of theft, hives would not be left unattended but accompanied by the beekeeper or at least a family member 24/7. While this may seem costly, and the price they get for honey is certainly less than we like (writing five years later, the enticing detail of honey price is not in any notes I can now find), the cost of living is itself so much lower that one person can support themselves and family with a hundred hives. How I envy them! Give me a yurta, a hundred hives, and a horse looks off wistfully into the distance.
Before, after, or both, every beekeeper we visited would offer me tea and a smorgasbord of fresh home made jams and other fresh delicacies either made at home or at least by a neighbor. Even the tea was often picked by the wife from local plants. For dinner every day in the Osh area we had a dish known as “osh,” a rice pilaf with meat in it. When I returned for my second project in the east of Kyrgyzstan I was staying in a crumbling Russian hotel that was a bit of a cliché of itself – assigned seating! Tickets for meals! Borshkt again? But when I ate out the food seemed to be cousins of things I've seen in Turkey – the Kyrgyz culture is part of a Turkic-Mongol continuum.
Everywhere I go I find beekeepers to be innovative lot, and Kyrgyzstan was no exception, I witnessed many interesting home-made tools and interesting techniques. While it seems most common to simply put beehives on the back of a flatbed, one man who was also a math and chemistry teacher at the local high school had built an impressive bee trailer with sixty hives built into it which could be accessed from pull-out drawers on the inside, and also within the trailer was a miniature extracting room with two fold out bunks, a fold out workbench over the extractor, and the extractor itself drained into storage tanks slung under the trailer.
Several of the more experienced beekeepers seemed to be adept at queen breeding, and yet one thing I saw over and over again was that beekeepers in Kyrgyzstan seemed to generally significantly rely on queens from far away in Ukraine. Even though it was hard to get them, there seemed to be a persistent belief that such queens were inherently better than anything locally bred could be. I am a firm believer in locally adapted stock. One thing I've seen again and again on projects is beekeepers hoping I'll bring them some golden bullet, expressing eagerness and hope I'll have some revolutionary new idea, but whatever change I really do recommend they don't really want to hear. In Egypt it was allowing hives to grow beyond one box in size (“ten frames? Time to split!”). Here it was breeding and buying local queens. Of note, Drs Sheppard and Meixner's research on bees in the area have identified a distinct subspecies, Apis mellifera pomonella, which, as the name suggests, has co-evolved in particularly close conjunction with apples, which apparently originated in the same region (see Sheppard & Meixner, “Apis mellifera pomonella, a new honey bee subspecies from Central Asia, Apidologie, 367-375, 2003).
August 11th, 2017, Australia – I wake up wrapped in blankets against the Antarctic winter cold. I'm supposed to fly to Congo that evening. I put on my glasses and blearily look at my phone to see what emails came in overnight and find I am not in fact going to Congo, the plan has changed and I'm instead going back to Kyrgyzstan! If you had asked me in high school if I wanted to be a professional beekeeper I might have said “no, I want to travel!” Little did I know.
This time I headed east from the capitol by car to near the large mountain lake of Issyk-Kul, a lake so big you can barely see the mountains on the far side (and a comfortable temperature for swimming in. Looking back at the beach you only see a smattering of yurtas on the shore and can truly wonder what century you're in). Up here in the mountains in the summer I saw first hand a great number of pastoralists living in their yurtas in quiet mountain valleys. One day as I walked along the road near my current host's house I encountered some young men with pet eagles. Not hawks or falcons, these raptors were huge and I had read of the eagle hunting done in the central asian mountains. I happily paid the lads the equivalent of about $3 to have my picture taken with an eagle perched (on thick leather gloves) on each arm, one proceeded to take literally 114 photos on my phone while the other failed to figure out he should take the lenscap off my DSLR, we had no common language and of course my hands were held in the grip of terrifyingly large talons. When I later told my host of the eagles, he made a face and said “they probably don't even actually hunt with them,” as if it is a positively shameful dereliction of duty to NOT hunt with eagles. Adds “have pet eagle” to Kyrgyz dream life.
Early in my arrival in Australia, in 2016, one of those old guys that haunt beekeeping meetings (you know the type) had declared for one and all that you should never put “stickies” (ie extracted frames), back in the beehive because “they will have begun to ferment and any alcohol will kill all your bees!” At the time I had rolled my eyes because I think giving stickies to hives is the best way to clean them up, even if you're just gonna take them off 24 hours later to put them in storage (but in Australia you must put them on the hive they came from unless you want to literally play with fire, since you can't treat for AFB and must depend on barrier quarantine). I bring this up now because here in Eastern Kyrgyzstan I met a Russian beekeeper who swears alcohol aids queen acceptance and was out there dribbling vodka right into hives as he introduced queens!!
In addition to reliance on foreign-bred queens another obstacle to the local beekeepers became apparent to me. Kyrgyzstan had been a part of the Soviet Union and during that time they had been freely able to transport their product throughout the vast Soviet empire. Now Kyrgyzstan is just a place the size of Nebraska that's separated from the big markets in Russia by several international borders. My sources told me even getting into the markets in the capital of Bishkek was hard because you had to know the right people and those people favored their existing friends (and, they alleged, adulterated the honey). This was beyond my purview as a technical expert though I suggested a strong national beekeeping federation could maybe help with these issues. I was informed that such an organization did exist but the people I talked to did not believe it was effective. I did leave a suggestion with the development office that they bring some specialists in these larger issues to help with the national federation.
I will admit, like probably most of you, when I had first heard of Kyrgyzstan, my response was probably “Klargobarkastan? That's a made up place like Bashkortostan!” [this is kind of an in-joke because the next international beekeeping conference is in 2021 in Bashkortostan, which is, indeed, a place] But I came to love the kind, earnest, hard working people in this bucolic place whose loveliness is perhaps preserved by the fact that most in the West have no idea what or where it is. The fact that there is still a place on this earth where people regularly live in comfortable yurts in the mountains with their hives and ride their horse to go visit their neighbor warms my heart.
By and by the second project ended, and I had to leave the flowery mountain pastures. A day's drive back to Bishkek, followed by 96 hours of flying: Bishkek to Istanbul (interrogated by secret police) to Dubai to Melbourne (47 fahrenheit) to Los Angeles (had to run to catch connection) to Atlanta (first Five Guys burger in years) to Managua, Nicaragua (is that volcano supposed to be smoking?), where another story begins.
I'd like to mention the interesting Durgan wedding I was invited to attend while I was there by way of highlighting ethnic diversity in Kyrgyzstan and the interesting cultural experiences but it doesn't relate to bees at all and I don't know how much purely travelog content they will tolerate.
The editor actually asked for the article for August or September so I'm ahead of the game like never before but figured this wasn't actually a thing I'd want to put off until the last possible minute. I'll probably try to give it a fresh look tomorrow (Sunday) and integrate the feedback from you fine people and my other beta readers and then send it to the Editor to see if he wants me to like strip all non-bee-related content from it or something.