Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L. (emo_snal) wrote,
Echidna Media Organization project S.N.A.L.
emo_snal

A Field Trip in Nigeria

   My home wifi has been down all evening, damn your eyes telstra! So finally I have resorted to using my phone data just to post this and do my nightly duolingo. This next scene doesn't really have any good internal dividing points so I'm just going to post it all at once.



Day 6 - Field Trip
February 18th, 2012 –
“Look at that development, you should take a picture of that” Hattrick urges me as we roll out of Ibadan past a tract of new cookie-cutter houses, each on a little square quarter acre lot with driveway and front lawn, just like America, very Norman Rockwell. I smile and take a picture just to be polite, digital film is cheap, so to speak. I know Hattrick is a bit concerned that I primarily photograph notable un-modern looking things and wants to highlight the more moern, but modern is boring to me.
We pass beyond the last suburban developments of Ibadan to find thick shrubbery on either side of the narrow paved road, with frequent cassava or yam fields -- rows of the straight leafy shoots of the above-ground part of the massive tubers. We drive, one landcruiser followed by one small bus of trainees, through villages of dull grey cinderblock buildings where the government has exercised its right of imminent domain on everything within fifteen feet either side of the road and just bulldozed through the structures that were there so every building has half a room fronting the road, stretching out its broken walls. We stop for a moment, to ask directions of a passerby near a crossroads in a village, which seems to be how one navigates here, and Hattrick gets out and buys something from a women frying balls of dough in a cauldron of oil by the road. He hands one to me, it’s sort of like a doughnut but a bit spicy, it’s totally delicious. I’m told it’s called a “popov,” apparently derived from “popover,” which may or may not be a similar food item in some part of the anglophone world as foreign and exotic to me as deepest Africa, such as maybe [googles] ... Boston. {the "googles" in square brackets is to actually occur in text ... while this is not}
   We arrive at our destination at an intersection of two dirt roads a short way off the paved road. The tree coverage isn’t quite a forest here but is thick enough that visibility isn’t far. In places there are more cassava plantations and the occasional person walking along, so it doesn’t feel like we’re in some distant uninhabited place. There’s a mess of cracked eggs at the base of a nearby tree.
   “What’s this?” I ask Hattrick
   “Oh it is a fetish. The simple peasants put them at crossroads like this due to their superstitions.”
   We suit up by the vehicles before approaching the hives. Most of the beekeepers have homemade bee suits that turn them into shapeless hooded figures, like a child dressed as a multi colored ghost for halloween. One man in elegant robes simply pulls his robes around him until he is completely covered. We then proceed the short walk to the hives. They are located in a shady area under some trees, though even here it is hot and humid. In a darker wetter glen just beside the hives some very large carnivorous pitcher plants were growing. I happen to have a kola nut in my pocket someone had given me and vaguely imagine if I dropped it into the pitcher plant it would become hypercaffienated and run amok.
   The hives are all topbar hives -- trough-shaped wooden boxes raised up on metal legs to about waist height. If you’re familiar with the box shaped hives ubiquitous in the US and developed world (“Langstroth hives), these are much more oblong. Some have sides slanting inward and some had straight sides.
   We don’t have a usual crucial piece of beekeeping equipment, a “smoker” consisting of a metal canister in which things smoulder and an attached bellows to puff the smoke out the tapered end. Instead we ignite dried corn cobs and other flammable materials in an old coffee can, and once smoke is billowing out the top one of the trainees dangles it under the first hive by its handle. The smoke billows vaguely against the hive. Someone flapps at it with a large leaf to drive it more towards the hive but I’m not sure much smoke actually is going in and having an effect.
   We open the lid and I am startled to see among the bees scurrying across the topbars over a hundred small beetles like all-black ladybugs. Small Hive Beetles! Aethina tumida! In the dry desert environment of California it was rare to see even a few hive beetles and seeing just two or three in a hive was cause for alarm. But this is their native land. Fortunately the bees here (Apis mellifera adonsonii) have co-evolved with the beetles and can handle them well, unlike the Europe-derived honeybees of America. If hive beetles overrun a hive it’s called a “slime out” because their maggot-like larvae overwhelm the hive and everything gets covered in a gross slime that is their defecation. This hive however doesn’t look like it’s suffering from the hive beetles though, and indeed all the hives we’d go on to look at had a lot of hive beetles with no ill effects.
   These bees run off of any piece of comb as soon as we begin to remove it, so that by the time we’ve removed it from the hive and are holding it up there are few bees on it. Once we’ve finished going through a hive here nearly all the bees are handing in a clump underneath the hive box. The European honeybees I’m accustomed to by and large remain on the comb, ideally ignoring the beekeeper (though if one hasn’t blown enough smoke one sign of imminent trouble is that the bees are all looking at you). Even with a stirred up colony of “Africanized” honeybees (AHB), while a lot will lift off to fly combat air patrols, the overwhelming majority at any given time will remain on the comb. While some of these colonies were a bit more aggressive than an ideal European hive, I found none were as bad as the average AHB colony.
   I had approached the hive fully suited up, but, finding from the behavior of the bees that there weren’t trying to sting me -- “angry” bees make a distinctively different pitch that becomes very recognizable with beekeeping experience, and the usual accompanying behavior of trying to sting one’s gloves and clothes is usually a give-away-- I carefully exposed first a few inches of my wrist between my glove and sleeve (just in case I’d read the scene wrong and there were prehaps angry bees whose sound was masked by the non-angry bees), and then removed one glove and then both and as a demonstration placed my hand squarely amid the bees crawling across the tops of the topbars in the hive. Many of the trainees first made exclamations of amazement at what I had done, as they had never even attempted to take such a risk, but seeing that I didnt’ get stung many then followed my example. This isn’t merely cowboy show-off antics, but rather I think it’s one of the most important lessons that one should be comfortable with the bees and not entirely in fear of them. There’s a trend in beekeeping training to teach new beekeepers to fully suit up every time but there’s compelling reasons to go bare handed if you can -- for example it’s much easier to manipulate the tools and parts of the hive, and being bare-handed will make you hyper-aware if you’re upsetting the bees, but in this case I really wanted to demonstrate to the trainees that their bees weren’t a fearsome danger to be very afraid of coming in contact with. The trainees with bare hands in the hive around me laughed and grinned and called out to their friends who were away looking at other hives to come see what they were doing.
   In topbar hives, under the lid one sees the tops of the “topbars,” lined up the length of the hive. Most of the hives are built pretty well but on some of them the topbars are wider or narrower than the requisite 32mm. This is possibly the most important measurement in beehives. One wants the bees to build exactly one comb hanging along the underside of each topbar and the bees have instinctual ideas about spacing -- too much or too little spacing will force them to either “double-comb” topbars or “cross-comb” across topbars thus leaving the beekeeper unable to remove topbars without breaking combs, smashing bees, and making a mess.
   While most of the hives mostly have suitable topbars there were a fair number of improperly sized ones and the consequent cross-combing problem. Fortunately, I have a measuring tool quickly at hand to measure for correct dimensions -- I had picked up a metal bottle-cap off the ground -- from a fanta bottle but all metal bottle caps seem to be the same size: 32mm. Placing this on topbars immediately tells us if the topbar is the correct width (if you’re doing this to topbars intended for European bees you’ll need a different measuring device, as they will want 38mm wide bars).
   In the third hive we opene up, there is indeed cross-combing. The combs break off as we remove the topbar, and I’m left awkwardly holding a detached piece of comb.
“At home I’d attach this into a frame with a rubber band but uh, I’m not sure what to do here” I admit.
   Hattick translates, and a trainee exclaimes “Ah!” while holding up a finger. He reaches out to a thin vine hanging from a tree that happens to be in arms-reach from where he is already standing. He pulls off a piece of it and further strips it apart like a piece of string cheese, producing a string-like portion that he uses to tie the comb onto the topbar. If held in place it should only take a few days for the bees to reattach the comb. This use of vines is the first of many lessons I would learn myself from the trainees.
Honey is easily harvested from these hives by slicing it off the topbars using a kitchen knife and letting it drop into a bucket. The honey is later squeezed from the comb. Though most of this group know basically how to operate these hives, I’m alarmed to see them about to harvest the uncapped honey every time they encounter a comb full of it. Nectar in flowers is 80-95% water, which is approximately opposite the proportions the bees want.
   “What is the water content of honey?” a trainee asks me as I’m trying to explain this.
   As I’m thinking “I don’t know that obscure statistic” my mouth opens and rather to my surpise the answer of “14-17%” comes out.
Bees “ripen” nectar into honey by dehydrating it in the hive, while enzymes work some other magic as well. The reasons for this dehydration are twofold: (1) with a water content higher than 17% it could ferment and it’s not very useful for the bees to all get drunk; (2) the bees’ interest in honey is as energy storage (consider that they don’t put on fat -- the honey is their analogous energy reserve), and it’s extremely space-inefficient to store it heavily diluted in water. As a beekeeper you don’t want to harvest this “unripened” honey because it will be thin, overly liquidy, and worst of all likely to ferment (which, when unexpected, usually upsets the people you’ve sold it to, and can also cause containers to explode). It is fortunately easy to determine when the honey is “done” because the bees seal over the top of the cell when it is done, and thus “capped honey” is what beekeepers are looking to harvest.
   Some of the less experienced trainees also are inclined to try to harvest “brood comb,” which is the darker brown section of the comb in which bee larvae are developing under capped cells. Bee larvae are obviously composed of mainly proteins, and not honey, and harvesting them with the honey is to be strictly avoided. The addition of significant amounts of protein into honey can make it cloudy, and being as this same person is likely harvesting unripe honey so the water content is high enough to allow bacterial growth, the whole thing could rot with disgusting and/or dangerous results.
   And this is partly why field visits are so critical on projects. I had already covered this stuff during “lecture,” but I can see many of the trainees are itching to harvest what looks to them to be a full comb and only reluctantly under my admonishments do they put it back.
   It is important to understand some socio-economic underpinnings for why they were inclined to do some things. Namely, I gather most of them live a bit far from where they have hives and none of them have a car. They are accustomed to infrequently visiting their hives and harvesting all they can when they’re there. I know there are real challenges to them coming out too frequently and if they leave honey the bees might consume it before they get back (or human thieves take it -- a frequent complaint is that the nomadic Fulani herdsmen who still wander the area rob their hives) but it’s my hope that by the end of the training and under the encouragement of some of the members who seem to have a strong aptitude for beekeeping, they’ll all learn to strategically plan their visits to pair their socioeconomic realities with the best beekeeping practices.
   After the initial few hives, I find my comments are often the same, and, moreover, because they have to be translated to the rest of the beekeepers, the one or two best trainees have more or less taken over the teaching. Realizing this, I begin to feel a bit redundant, like I’m losing control of the session, but then I reason that there was absolutely nothing wrong with this and content myself with only jumping in if there is something new or I sense the teaching might not be perfectly accurate, and far from looking at me like I’m redundant I’m sensing an increasing fond respectfulness from the trainees. They’ve begun to call me “otunba,” a high traditional title.
Suddenly I hear a commotion. I look up to see trainees backing away from a hive and some are running towards it with sticks. It turns out on lifting the lid they discovered a lime green snake under the lid. A rhythmic wacking sound accompanies excited exclamations as they beat it to death.
   “Is it venomous?” I ask
   “They don’t know” says Hattrick, and perhaps seeing the frown I was trying to hide elaborated that “it’s better to be safe.”
I’m rather concerned that this treatment of the snake isn’t quite necessary, but their safety in re potentially venomous snakes is not within my purview.

   It was generally agreed that the field visit was very productive and henceforth every training day consisted of a morning session at the government building and an afternoon trip to a hive site




   If you've read this far, thanks! And as I mentioned, this is still all very first draft. I feel that summation sentence at the end is limp like a dead snake but hey.

   In other other news I found the phone I couldn't find the other day. It was inexplicably in the car door-pocket. don't know whyyyyy it would be there.
Tags: nigeria, the apinautica, writing
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