Up north and personal: Honey, I’m home!

It's a bee-utiful day to visit the hives in Islamabad.

Zahrah Nasir April 09, 2011

Some days are just so exhilarating that you know, even as they unfold, that you will remember the sights, sounds and even smell of them forever. For me, yesterday was one such day!

There was a definite chill in the air at 6 am when I took the dogs for their morning stroll around the orchard. Birds sang amongst the plum blossoms and narcissus scented the air. I was ready for my expedition down into the world beyond the mountains and by the time the cab came to pick me up at 8 am, I was raring to go!

Zooming down the Murree Expressway, I saw teams of men hard at work planting trees and shrubs in ridiculously close proximity to each other — so close, in fact, that they couldn’t possibly all survive. The temperature began to rise and by the time we reached Barakao, I had shed my padded waistcoat and heavy sweatshirt and was ready to face the spring day in a gay yellow t-shirt, blue jeans and joggers, with a flamboyant turquoise chador draped over one shoulder for decorum’s sake.

Entering the massive acreage of the National Agricultural Research Centre in Chak Shehzad, Islamabad, is always a fascinating experience, at least for someone with horticultural inclinations. There are always new plots of under-trial fruit, vegetables and crops calling out to be explored and bunches of interesting-looking people, often with clipboards, holding open-air conferences.

Reaching my destination bang on time, I was given a warm welcome and a hot cup of tea by Dr Elizabeth Waghchoure, Director of the Honeybee Research Institute which, quite literally, hums with activity. This hive of industry — please excuse me, but I couldn’t resist that — has been around for well over 30 years now and has done some tremendous work in promoting apiary amongst the general population. In rural areas in particular, honey production can be a reasonably lucrative source of income as the 4,000 registered bee-keepers throughout the country have reason to know.

After an informative chit-chat about bees during which Dr Elizabeth realised that I was genuinely interested in the subject, she took me to meet the resident colonies of Apis mellifera, a highly productive bee species introduced from Australia back in 1979. A bevy of scientists and their students were busily experimenting behind the well-maintained research buildings. The few dozen purposely designed wooden beehives nestled in assorted citrus trees, and the air thrummed with the coming and going of worker bees as they laboured to transport pollen from flowers and blossoms back to their home hives and queens.

For some strange reason it seems that the majority of the human race is petrified of these industrious winged insects and, expecting me to fall into this mould, Dr Elizabeth cautioned me about venturing close to the hives to take photographs. But knowing that the bees wouldn’t harm me as long as I didn’t harm them, I felt confident enough to walk — slowly, so as not to alarm them — amongst them. Bees crawled in my hair, tickled my arms and thoroughly enjoyed my t-shirt, yellow being one of their favourite colours. A cluster of half a dozen resting on the back of my hand even allowed me to lightly stroke them; feeling them vibrate as they hummed was thrilling!

My mission, other than to stock up on guaranteed natural honey from the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council sales outlet on Park Road — which, by the way, has lots of honey varieties to choose from plus sells things like chamomile tea produced by the Arid Zone Research Centre along with seasonal organic fruit and vegetables — was to purchase three hives of bees to install in my orchard where they could pollinate my crops and provide home ‘grown’ honey in return. Keeping bees is something I have considered doing for years. A few years ago, I got as far as buying an empty hive, a small one suitable for our indigenous bee species Apis Cerana which is abundant in the hills, in anticipation of enticing a swarm to take up residence in this conveniently placed home. These wild bees tend to swarm in early spring when new queens hatch out and take off in search of new kingdoms with a mass of very necessary worker bees in tow and seeing a swarm in motion is a stunning sight. How the queen figures out when she has reached a realm to be taken is a complete mystery to me!

Anyway, when buying the empty hive I was advised to stand its four legs in tins half full of oily water to prevent ants from raiding the honey supply, to place it facing due east towards the rising sun and to lavishly rub it with things like lavender oil, rose oil or natural beeswax the aroma of which would certainly entice bees. Three years later, having also painted the hive yellow, it was still empty. So I again painted it a bee-attracting blue, which was later toned down to cream dotted with blue flowers with yellow centers for good luck. Eight years down the line the ‘Vacancy’ sign having become somewhat jaded, I figured that the only way I was going to get bees in residence was if I went out and bought some. Much to my disappointment, Dr Elizabeth didn’t have any for sale and contacting the beekeepers on the list she provided was unfruitful too. Surely, someone out there amongst the 27,000 beekeeping families in Pakistan will have bees for me if I search long and hard enough!

I returned home late in the afternoon with images of bees stamped firmly on my retinas and dreams of bee-enticement emerging in my mind. After explaining to them exactly why I’d had to leave them behind, I let the dogs out for a well-deserved run. As I put the kettle on for a relaxing cup of apple mint tea Hell-Bella bounced back inside and I screamed!

She was completely mired in poop! Porcupine poop! The nauseating stink brought me right back to reality and landed Hell-Bella in a bucket of warm soapy, disinfectant-doused water. She emerged looking like a drowned rat, rushed out to the garden, and rolled in the poop again! Argh!


Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April  3rd, 2011.


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