Earlier this year, I began a fundraising campaign entitled Bees for the Maasai. This project was designed to assist a group of Maasai beekeepers in the southern region of Kenya, in an area known as Kuku Ranch. Kuku Ranch is a group-owned area, similar to an American Indian reservation, where the Maasai can live their life, practice their traditions, and use the land for their own purposes.
Working with the non-profit organization Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust, and a local lodge called Kampi Ya Kanzi, we were able to raise a total of $1,626 USD to purchase beekeeping equipment to bring out to my contact and friend, Mutuku Mutua (AKA Wilbur).
The money raised went a long way and we were able to get an enormous list of supplies out to this remote area of Kenya. I was worried about losing some of the items along the way (especially the oxalic acid powder, bundle of electronic sensors, and smokers), but it all made it to the final destination.
When arriving at the camp where Wilbur is stationed, I was greeted the happiest beekeeper in Kenya. Wilbur could not believe the quality of all the equipment and the generosity of the many people who donated towards this idea. Wilbur immediately donned one of the new suits and said that he could never find anything close to this kind of quality, even in Nairobi! Much of the Kenyan equipment is hand-made by other beekeepers in the area, and it’s often difficult to find high quality equipment.
The suits that I brought are made by Mann Lake, and are full body, vented suits. Being vented was a huge requirement for Kenya because of the heat. When you work with bees, you tend to sweat a lot anyway, and having a canvas suit in 90 degree weather is not going to be comfortable. The vented suits help a lot by being made with a sandwich of rubber webbing and netting. Although bulky, and spacesuit-like, they also double being completely “bee proof” by creating a pocket of air that stings cannot get through.
Once the equipment was unpacked and inventoried, we gathered Wilbur’s new team of beekeepers. Each beekeeper was responsible for a small apiary in a different location within Kuku Ranch and this was their first beekeeping experience. Until that point, Wilbur had the only beekeeping suit in the area, so he was the only one to maintain all 11 hives in their apiaries.
We started the day with some basics about bee biology and beekeeping techniques. Since a PowerPoint deck would probably put the team to sleep, I kept things very simple, and used pictures and drawings to demonstrate things that I couldn’t show in person. My drawings were pretty terrible, but I think this worked well, and was a very effective learning technique for the group.
Before we all suited up I walked everyone through the most difficult part of beekeeping, starting the smoker. Unlike in Seattle, the ground is chock full of useful burning materials for the smoker. We found that the best smoke was produced with some dried Zebra poop, which was plentiful.
With smokers lit, we were ready to enter the hive. At least, I thought I was ready. Nothing could really prepare me for the angry wrath of bees that were about to be unleashed upon me. This was a new experience for me!
European bees don’t do this. The bees I have come to know and love will look up at me from their frame and sit patiently while I muck around in their hive. The “African Bee” is a different story. These girls are the most aggressive bees I have ever seen. As soon as I opened the hive, there was a signal released for “All hands to battle stations!”. Nurse bees, field bees, young bees, old bees; No matter their role, all bees are now guarding the hive. Smoke does pretty much nothing to calm them, and they are out to stop whatever is attacking their hive. I quickly learned why these were nicknamed “Killer Bees”.
Thankfully the suits, boots, and gloves all provided use the maximum amount of protection against the onslaught of bees. We all got stung at least once, but only when we would bend over, causing the mask to briefly brush up against our faces. That is exactly what the bees were waiting for and would get you every time. We made a game out of reminding each other to be careful every time we bent over. I only got one sting in the neck, but out of the tens of thousands of attempted stings, I’m pretty happy with that outcome.
In our hands-on beekeeping session, the team and I were able to open each hive and look for signs of disease and harvest any honey that was ready. In the end, it turned that there were at least 50 frames of capped honey that needed harvesting, so we had quite the bounty on our first day.
With all the harvested honey and comb we had a lot of processing work to do in the kitchen. First we had to get all the bees off our suits, so we could take them off. To do this, we walked around for about 20 minutes, smoking one another, to try and get all the bees off. This was mildly effective and we eventually got all our suits off without any straggler bees coming after us. This was an unexpected challenge of doing beekeeping with these bees. Had we gone directly back to the camp, there would have been a lot of upset staff pulling stingers out and giving us dirty looks.
With our suits removed we went into the kitchen to start processing all the honey we harvested. Using the buckets and strainers that we purchased, we were able to use the “crush” technique to harvest the honey, so we could keep all the wax.
As we waited for the honey to strain, we moved on to processing the beeswax. This is a similar process to straining the honey and involves melting it down, and running it through a strainer to remove the impurities from the wax. At home I use a crock pot to melt my wax, but here they use a wood-burning stove for all their cooking needs. It was interesting to see how they use this stove and how they are able to control the heat from it. Once were able to get a block of pure beeswax, we could start use it in other recipes.
Tourism is a huge industry in this area and it provides an opportunity for this group of Maasai to sell local honey and wax products. Having experimented with these recipes before coming to Kenya, and coming along with a digital scale, I showed the team how to make lotion bars and lip balm from their beeswax.
This was a huge eye-opening moment for the team. I could see the gears turning in their heads as they realized how easy it was to turn honeycomb into various products. Wilbur mentioned that processing the wax is an excellent job for some of the women in the community to get involved with. They could invent different scents to add into the products, design packaging, and come up with new wax recipes that utilize the local available resources. The new opportunities discussed among the team started to flow like honey.
All in all, the project was a huge success, and everyone went home that night with a new beekeeping suit, new knowledge, and new opportunities. As I left, Wilbur personally thanked me for everything I had done for him, his team, and his community. This meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to me to be able to do this. I felt as though I learned just as much about bees as Wilbur did on this day, and I now have a new appreciation for how calm and gentle European bees are compared to African bees.