The Africans in Mexico - A Bee Hunting Adventure
“Vamos al enhambre. Quieren ustedes ir?”
“Let's go to the beehive. Do you want to go?” they were asking us.
Si! Si! Si, Por supuesto," we replied. "Yes! Yes! Yes, of course!"
The year was 1985. We were about 600 miles due south of the southwestern tip of New Mexico in a remote foothills village on the western slope of the Sierra Madre mountains in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. My wife Yanna Fishman and my old friend and expedition partner, Gary Shapiro and I had been invited by Silverio Perez and his family to stay with them for a while. Gary and I had worked with Silverio on previous occasions. Silverio's family, like the rest of the villagers here, were campesinos (peasant farmers). They made a sparse but adequate living raising corn, beans and cattle, supplemented by foraging, hunting, and some crafts.
No one in the village kept honeybees, but many of the villagers knew of perhaps as many as a dozen feral colonies located in the nearby cliffs and canyons. They would occasionally harvest honey from the more accessible of these colonies. A honey gathering expedition to one of their favorite hives was being planned and we were invited. I couldn't have been more delighted.
The next morning a group of about ten of us hiked a few of miles up a trail into a barranca (a canyon full of small trees and other vegetation). The group split up as the canyon got steeper and narrower. I headed to the left with the guys who were going to rob the hive. The other group, including Yanna and Gary, went to the right and climbed the facing canyon wall to a place where they could get a view to watch and photograph the event.
A young man named Guerillo was more or less the leader. He took us up on a ridge overlooking the cliffs, where he tied a long rope to a tree. They gathered a few handfuls of firewood and then holding onto the rope we lowered ourselves down the cliff face. There were a few trees and some other vegetation growing out of the rocks here and there. The rope gave welcome security as we worked our way down and it was really essential the last twenty feet as the cliff got steeper near the hives. There is a small ledge just below the hive and Guerillo lowered himself down to this ledge. From where I was situated just above the hive, I could watch Guerillo work, but I could only see a small part of the comb sticking out from behind the rocks protruding from it's alcove in the cliff. From the other side of the canyon, however, Yanna could see it all. She looked through the telephoto lens and was astounded. "This is the biggest hive you have ever seen," she hollered. "There’s nine or ten combs. Some are four feet long!" Guerillo lit a small fire on the ledge at his feet. Then he held smoking chunks of wood up under the combs. We lowered a 5 gallon plastic bucket down to him and soon he was cutting large pieces of golden, honey-filled comb and loading them into the bucket. When that bucket was mostly full we hauled it up and handed him another.
As the second bucket was getting full, I noticed that he had it tied to a branch with what looked to me like a flimsy palmetto palm frond. The bucket was accumulating weight rapidly. It probably had 30 or more pounds in it. I kept looking at the hasty hitch he had made with this palm leaf holding all that weight and finally had to question him. "?Es suficiente fuerte?" (Is it strong enough?) I asked.
He looked at me and then smiled, "Si, como no." (Yes, of course.) He used palm leaves like this all the time, he assured me. Later I learned that the rope that was holding us as we climbed down the cliff was made out of this same kind of palm leaves. (And we later learned to make these ropes ourselves.) (more on rope making can be found in Elliott’s book, Woodslore.)
Soon the second bucket was full and most of the accessible honey was harvested. Guerillo was getting stung occasionally but he didn't let it bother him. He had accidentally cut one comb that contained mostly brood (young bee larva) and I watched while he used a stick as a prop and carefully tucked these baby bees back into their nest before he started back up the cliff. I was impressed with his concern for the well-being of the hive as well as his ability to work the bees barefoot and with short sleeves and no protection on his face (not to mention while perched on the edge of a cliff.) We hauled the heavy buckets up the cliff and then down the trail and eventually we met up with Silverio's brother Regino who had been out gathering majauhue (bark strips) for thatching the roof of his new house. We loaded the buckets on his burro and they carried them the rest of the way back to the village. There they strained this light, flavorful honey and poured it into an assortment of bottles and jars. By the next day most of the honey harvest was dispersed among family and friends in the village.
Though we kept in touch with the Perez family, we didn't make it back to the village for eighteen years. I often thought about that hive. I had read with interest in the beekeeping journals about the gradual northward extension of the range of the Africanized (so-called killer) honeybees. Like many beekeepers, I monitored their slow but sure spread from Brazil though much of South and Central America , on through Mexico and eventually into the southwestern United States . I wondered about this hive. Located as it was in a remote canyon, could it escape the "invasion" of the "killer bees"?
When we had an opportunity to return to the village in January, 2003, one of the first things I asked about was that wild hive. Regino, as it turned out was the right person to ask. He told me about one day in the mid 1990's when his buddy, Guico, (Guerillo's brother) said to him, "Vamos al enjambre" (Let's go to the hive.) It would be a good day to go harvest honey from this favorite wild beehive. So they loaded up their buckets and ropes and headed up into the barranca. As usual, they tied the rope to a tree at the top of the cliff and worked their way down. Once Guico got situated on the ledge at the base of the hive, Regino climbed back up and gathered firewood and brought it back down to Guico. Guico took one of the sticks and hit it against the ledge he was standing on to break it into smaller pieces to start the fire. As soon as that stick hit the rock, those bees attacked and covered them both up. Regino was up the cliff further but those bees swarmed all over him too, stinging him all over. He said that as fast as he would wipe them off more would come. He grabbed the rope and started up the cliff as fast as he could, swatting bees all the way. The bees were even attacking the moving rope as he climbed hand over hand, so he got a handful of bees and more stings every time he grabbed the rope.
By then Guico, who was still down below, right beside the hive, was screaming, "They are killing me! I can' t see!" They were stinging him all over his face. Regino tried to go back down to help him but the bees were attacking him so he couldn't get nearer. Guico was screaming, "I can't see! Where is the rope? Where is the rope?"
"It's right there," Regino shouted. "Feel for it. It's right there; right in front of you."
Guico groped around frantically for the rope and when his hand finally felt a rope he desperately grabbed and pulled. It was a rope alright -- the rope he was using for a belt to hold up his baggy pants. He pulled out the slip knot that was holding his pants up and his pants fell down. Now he had bees in his pants too! He really started screaming then but somehow he finally found the correct rope and started up the cliff as fast as his drooping trousers would allow. He finally got up to Regino. Regino helped him up over the ridge and they managed to swat most of the remaining bees off him -- whereupon he fainted. In a minute or two he woke up. Then he vomited (and emptied out from the other end too). His face was so swollen he couldn't see, but he could still walk. Regino led him down the steep trail. They came to a deep pool in the stream. Guico immersed himself in the pool thinking it might give him some relief, but the opposite occurred. The water seemed to activate the stings. Guico let out a moan and passed out again -- this time in the stream. Regino ran into the water to drag him out before he drowned.
"But he was fat!" Regino exclaimed, "I couldn't pick him up and carry him." He did manage to drag him to the shore where he could get Guico's head out of water. Regino shouted for help. His calls were heard by a lone broom maker who was in a nearby thicket with his burro cutting a particular shrub that is used to make the brooms that people use to sweep their yards. (No lawn mowing in that part of Mexico.) The two of them loaded the still unconscious Guico onto the burro, draping him across the load of broom straw, belly down. Before long they got back to the village. When Silverio, saw them coming in like that, he thought Guico was drunk. When Guico's wife saw him, she thought her husband had eaten so much honey it made him fall asleep. When they realized what had happened, someone ran to the village telephone and called the doctor who lived in a nearby town. The doctor, ironically, was unavailable because he had also, just that day, walked too close to a wild beehive and the same thing had happened to him. However, their mother, Catalina Perez, is somewhat of a curandera (healer), so she made Guico a strong potion from a tropical vine called guaco and within a few days he was completely recovered.
Regino says that when he sees Guico these days, he will often say, "Vamos al enjambre." Guico doesn't think it is very funny.
This story appeared in the American Bee Journal, V.143 No.10 October 2003. I split the money I was paid for the article with Regino, Guerillo and Guico.