Morels are happening! We’ve had some nice rain the last few weeks. The morels are popping up. This might be a good year and a good season to look for these easily recognizable world class gourmet mushrooms. (Take a field guide with you). It is often said that they emerge about the time the mayapples emerge. Over the years, the first place we usually find them is around our bee hives. Morels are associated around here with tulip poplars, ash, dying elms, and old apple orchards. They are sometimes found in great numbers after a forest fire. Morels are both saprobic (decomposing dead organic matter) and mycorrhizal, meaning they also connect to live plant roots in a more or less symbiotic relationship, where the fungus gets sugars and nutrients from the plant while providing the plants’ roots with a greatly increased absorptive surface area by extending mycelia out into the earth. This enhances the plant’s ability to derive nutrients from the soil. I first learned about mycorrhizae thirty-some years ago when I was combing the botany library at UNC in Chapel Hill researching roots for my first book (Wild Roots). I was fascinated to learn that almost all healthy plant roots are infected by fungus. (“Mycorrhizae” means fungus-roots.) The plant’s good health is actually dependant on this fungal infection. Apparently even in rich soil that is sterile, without fungus, most plants can barely survive. It’s the fungal connection that allows them to thrive. This fungal connection is why certain mushrooms are found under certain trees
I have been reading (and writing) about mycorrhizae for decades but I had never actually seen them. Last summer my son, Todd, sat in on some graduate level mycology classes at Duke and at the Highlands Biological Station where they did extensive microscope work. So last week, when we were digging holes to plant muscadine grapes, and Todd unearthed a mass of mycorrhizal rootlets, we prevailed upon him to show us how to examine them with the microscopes. First at 70X we looked at the uninfected rootlets that were covered with root hairs. Root hairs are large single cells that form the primary absorptive surface of the plant roots. Then we looked at the engorged mycorrhizal rootlets (that looked like tiny twisted balloon creatures) He cut a tiny section of the rootlet, dyed it, pushed a cover slip on to it and when we looked at it at 700x. We could see the microscopic hyphal strands that penetrate between the cell walls of the rootlet and extend out from the surface. These are the parts that grow out into the soils and become part of the great mycelial web that is a primary component of the “fabric” of the earth– essential strands in the web of life. There’s a lot going on beneath our feet!
We had a marvelous trip to Costa Rica in 2006. First we went to a no-frills jungle lodge called Rara Avis (rare birds) fifteen kilometers into the jungle. It takes three or four hours to travel that distance. It’s an amazing, wet, green rainforest scene.
On the trail we found tiny bright red frogs with blue legs. These are called “blue jean” or “strawberry” frogs. They are one of the brightly colored tropical frogs with toxic skin secretions known as poison dart frogs. Related species of these frogs were/are used by native hunters in South America to poison the tips of their blowgun darts. We learned that these little warning-colored beauties have an extraordinary life history. The males establish territories and staunchly defend them. Occasionally during the breeding season they can be seen (looking like tiny sumo wrestlers) struggling with each other over a tiny piece of the forest floor from which to sing a love song described as “insect-like chirps and buzzes”. His calls attract a female. As she approaches, a male will ceremoniously deposit a wad of semen on a fallen leaf and move away, inviting the female to come and lay her eggs. If his song has “moved” her in that special way, she will deposit three to five eggs. A week or so later when the tadpoles hatch, she returns, and backs into the glob of newly hatched tads until one wiggles up onto her back. Then she climbs up a tree with the tadpole hanging on like a slimy little fanny pack. Up in the tree she finds a pineapple-like bromeliad air plant that has water trapped in its leaves. She lowers herself into the pool and the little tad swims away into what has become the nursery pool. She makes several trips back down the tree until she has all her tadpoles in the pool. Then she returns every couple of days and backs herself into the pool. Her tadpoles wiggle their tails excitedly at her approach. When she senses their presence, she deposits unfertilized eggs for her babies to eat! The tadpoles eat them by “biting a hole in the jelly capsule and sucking out the contents.” Slurp! How ‘bout that for a child-care system!
After marveling at the frogs, a little further ahead we came upon a 5 foot boa constrictor crossing the trail. I had had a pet boa just like this when I was a teenager. I spent many hours with that critter. Here in the wild was a snake just like the one I had as a pet. It was living free and literally crossing our path at this moment in time. I begged the guide to let me “mess” with it. In his best English, he replied, “Okay but, eet’s gonna bite you, man!” I gently picked it up and let it crawl through my hands, marveling at its thick, strong body and then I passed it to Todd and he handled it for a few minutes. Then when I reached for it to take it back, the snake saw my rapidly approaching hand as an attack and it went into a defensive mode and rather dramatically bit me; my punctured hand bled dramatically (as superficial punctures are prone to do). All this totally amazed the other guests. (Boas are not venomous, by the way, and it healed up in a couple of days.)
We spent the next few days roaming trails, seeing all sorts of flowers, birds, frogs, and mammals, like coatimundis, which look like streamlined coons with long erect tails. We saw rare, intermediate, nether-world type creatures like a caecilian, which is a primitive amphibian that looks like a huge lavender-purple earthworm, and the rare velvet worm which looks like a soft-bodied centipede. The velvet worm captures its prey by ejecting a glob of clear mucous that entangles the hapless critter. The one we saw in our flashlight beam had just caught a small roach.
There was even a tapir that came onto the grounds of the lodge. A tapir is the size of a burro and related to the horse and rhinoceros. It has three toes on its feet and a stubby, almost elephant-like snout. It is generally considered the wildest and shyest of the rainforest creatures, but this one had gotten used to the folks at the lodge and came to visit almost weekly especially when lured by one of the guides who cut a branch of its favorite food tree (Clusia) which usually grew out of its reach. They had named him Miguel. There he was standing in front of the dining hall munching leaves off the fresh cut branch. Miguel had a strange backward pointed penis. He regularly urinated a stream straight back from between his hind legs. Hint: Don’t stand directly behind a tapir.
It was astounding to me that this proverbial wild, timid creature actually enjoyed being rubbed and patted. It even lay down to get its belly scratched and allowed me to pull some huge ticks off. When it ambled back off into the jungle I followed along (but not directly behind.). I wanted to prolong and maximize the experience of being with this critter, but when it got into the forest, it became wild again, became suspicious of me and would not allow me to get close.
Todd carried his camera practically everywhere, documenting everything he could and was incredibly alert and observant. We all saw twice as much because of him.
Our time at Rara Avis helped us acclimate and prepare for our upcoming sessions at the more upscale resort called Sueno Azul (“Blue Dream”) where we helped to coordinate Omega Institute’s Family Week in the Rainforest.
Family Week in the Rain Forest
At Sueno Azul we met with former Omega friends Stephen and Lila Pague and put together a fun week of activities for 27 people– about 7 families with varying numbers of adults and kids. Our activities included music, singing, skits, and crafts, like vine baskets, dream catchers and palm crafts from materials we gathered. We swam in clear jungle rivers and explored the rain forest, observing monkeys, toucans, sloths, snakes, bats, etc. We had exciting experiences catching young caimans (Central American ‘gators), huge toads, and other critters at night; and butterflies and lizards during the day. We harvested tropical fruits (guavas, coconuts, citrus). We not only fished with hooks and line, the kids cleaned their catches (tilapia/mojara) and cooked them on an open fire that Steven started without matches using a bow drill. bThere was also yoga and chi-gong in the mornings, supplemented by resort-sponsored activities like zip-lining through the rainforest canopy from tree to tree (swinging for a mile or so on cables sometimes 90 feet up), whitewater rafting, horseback riding, etc…not to mention incredible regional food.
bEvery night Todd would come back into the gathering area with amazing critters including small caimans, large geckos, and one night, a Northern Jacana, which is a bird (like a quail-sized coot with long legs ending in huge heron-like feet.) On its wings at the “wrist joint” there was a bright yellow pointed spur, supposedly used in defense of territory (more on that below). Jacana spinosa is the scientific name; spinosa likely referring to that spine or spur.
bWe were astounded when we researched this strange bird’s natural history. Jacanas are appreciated by “feministas” because of the “reversal of typical avian sex roles.” Males do all the nest building, incubation, and child care. It is the female who defends her territory. As soon as she finds a mate, he creates a smaller territory of his own within her larger territory. She mates with him, lays her eggs and leaves that male on the nest to brood the eggs and tend to her young. Then she takes up with another male, makes a nest, and mates with him in another part of her territory, leaving him sitting on that batch of eggs in another nest, and so on…. One female has been observed mating with four different males in one hour. As promiscuous as this sounds, she does remain true to “her guys,” mating with the same males year after year and she helps them guard their nests and defend their territories. This “simultaneous polyandry” is rare in birds and might have evolved because the high rate of nest failure and egg and hatchling mortality in the unstable watery environment where these creatures live and breed.
The Costa Ricans were extraordinarily upbeat, friendly and really supportive of our efforts to speak Spanish, though many in the resort speak English. It was really heartwarming to work with Todd and Yanna (and Steven and Lila) as a team. Sometimes we’d all be together and other times Yanna would have some people weaving baskets in one area. Todd would have a group of kids playing soccer or exploring the lake. I’d be doing a walk Steven would be playing guitar music. Sometimes Steven, Todd and I would play tunes and the whole group would sing and carry on together. Great experience for us all. Maybe you might like to join us in 2007 (Easter Week, April 7-14). www.eomega.org/omega/travel
In the picture below we are showing a 6 foot Sabanera, the beautiful green, yellow and orange flecked, very snappy (but not venomous), bird-eating snake. (It also bit me shortly after this picture was taken.)
Our son Todd had been working up a few stories, tricks and fiddle routines and we have had a great time performing together the last couple of years. The summer of 2005 we were invited to the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival in Utah and the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee where he told stories about his chickens and played fiddle tunes like “Cluck Ole Hen”. People seemed to like it pretty well.
I have been keeping bees for some twenty-five years. As Todd seemed interested in bees as a little boy, I invested in a kid-sized bee suit and we have had fun working together in the bee yard. Just to keep him engaged, I would designate one hive that was “Todd’s hive” but the 2003 and 2004 seasons with mite problems and the excessive rain during the nectar flows, were the worst local beekeepers had ever seen and even though we had at least a half-dozen hives, we still ended up buying some honey for our own household use.
The spring of 2005, however, our eight hives survived the winter and as spring rolled around, the colonies were building up well. As it turned out, I had a 10 day storytelling tour in late April- early May (CT, PA, MO). This is the season that bees swarm, (When your hive swarms, the old queen and most of the work force leave to establish a new colony and you lose most of the surplus honey crop for that year, but if you can catch the swarm before it flies away, you can establish a new hive.) Before I left we made sure the bees had enough room in their hives to expand and we did everything else we could to prevent swarming. Just to be sure, I left Todd with 3 empty hive bodies ready in case the bees did swarm. I came back to find our apiary had more than doubled in size to seventeen hives. Todd had caught more than a dozen swarms. He had scavenged every bit of used bee equipment he could find to hive the swarms and had even called neighbors to give away swarms, mentoring some elderly new bee keepers in the process. So now there is no question about some of the hives being “Todd’s hives”. And he knows which ones they are – he caught ’em. And this year we got some really nice honey.
(There is more on beekeeping and the life of the hive in my book, Wildwoods Wisdom Chapter 9 entitled, “Observations of Social Parasitism – Of Feminist Bees, Slave Making Ants, Radical Gardeners, and Sleazy Academics”.)
Ever since I had seen the article in that old National Geographic Magazine about the Cree Indians, I hadn’t been able to get that picture out of my head. It showed a young Cree mom diapering her baby with sphagnum moss.
Wow! What a concept! I knew sphagnum moss well. I had seen it many times in my wanderings in wetland areas in various parts of the country. I had marveled at its pale green color and its soft, absorbent, spongy texture. I had picked it up by the handful and marveled at how much water I could squeeze out of it. One time I did a test with a bunch of dry sphagnum and a sensitive scale. I found out that it would hold 12 times its own weight in water. Sphagnum’s remarkable ability to soak up water is why it is so important in nature. Because of its water retaining properties and its ability to create and maintain an acid habitat for itself and other plants, sphagnum plays a key role in the formation of bogs. Bog environments act like huge sponges that control erosion on mountain slopes and flooding in valleys. In fact the drainage of almost all the vast northern regions of our planet is controlled by sphagnum moss. Sphagnum moss deposits also provide a medium for the seeding of trees and other plants that are important in the development of northern forests. The peat moss that we buy to mulch our shrubs and mix with potting soil is primarily ancient sphagnum moss that has been mined out of former bog areas.
I had spent time with traditional moss rakers in southern New Jersey. These backwoods folks, known as “pineys”, who live in the relatively undisturbed and ecologically unique area known as the Jersey Pine Barrens, rake fresh sphagnum moss out of bog areas, dry it and bale it for sale to nurseries and garden centers.
The photos above are of William Wasowich, one of the last South Jersey moss rakers hard at work in 1992 in a Pine Barrens sphagnum bog. Wasowich was one of the characters mentioned in John McPhee’s book, The Pine Barrens.
Sphagnum moss also has a long history of use as a wound dressing, reaching a peak in its use during World War I when it was used by both the Germans and the Allies. By the end of the war, the British production of sphagnum dressings was estimated to have been about one million pounds a month.
In the 1730’s the great Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus, observed, “The Lapland matrons are well acquainted with [sphagnum] moss. They lay it in their children’s cradles to supply the place of bed, bolster, and every covering; and being changed night and morning, it keeps the infant remarkably clean, dry, and warm … and makes a most delicate nest for the new-born babe.”
Yes, what a perfect material, I thought — a completely organic, biodegradable, disposable diaper. What new parent wouldn’t be thrilled to have such a thing? As my friends began to have babies I would often go into a bog and collect and dry a batch of beautiful soft sphagnum moss and present it to them as a gift at baby showers. I was astounded that even some of my more earthy friends were simply not interested. They would often say, patronizingly, “Yeah right, Doug, go ahead use that moss on your baby.”
Well the time had come. My wife was pregnant and the nesting phase had begun. The nesting phase is that time during pregnancy when many women get seriously focused on “preparing their nest” for the arrival of the new baby. From knitting tiny garments and shopping for blankets and diapers, to preparing the cradle, crib, playpen and other neonatal accoutrements. The nesting phase is a busy, exciting time in an expectant mother’s life.
As an expectant dad, I found my own nesting instinct had kicked in powerfully and now this old rolling stone was scurrying around in bogs gathering every bit of moss he could find. By the time our little one was due, I had stored away several big bags of carefully dried sphagnum.
What marvelous material it is. I can’t say that it was the only diapers we used because we tried all kinds. But sphagnum was our favorite, not only because it is natural and biodegradable but because it was simply, the best. The moss seems to wick moisture away from the baby’s skin and the tiny dry particles of moss act almost like a talcum powder so that the baby’s skin stays smooth and dry. Feces is absorbed and enclosed in a wad of moss. Because of these properties, as well as the fact that the moss is slightly acidic and is reported to contain small amounts of iodine, sphagnum can be helpful to prevent and heal diaper rash.
diaper changeAnd it was so convenient. When it was time for a diaper change, we would simply remove the moss, and if we were home, we would compost it under a fruit tree. If we were on the trail hiking, we would simply tuck the soiled moss into the topsoil and cover it with leaves or other forest duff. On car trips we would pull off the highway and bury it. (Once we even discretely slipped a wad of our nitrogen-enriched sphagnum deep into the mulch under landscape shrubbery outside a shopping mall.)
I realized that not only were we being gentle on the earth and giving our baby the best care available but we were also, in some ways, tapping into our ancient heritage because sphagnum moss was used by our northern European ancestors as well as native North Americans.
I asked a native-American friend, who is a speaker of Cree and other northern Algonquian dialects about sphagnum. He told me about how it is still used in the back- country. Mothers wrap their babes in a soft buckskin bag filled with dry sphagnum and change it as necessary His people use the word “otaow” (rhymes with cow) to refer to sphagnum moss. When I asked him about how the word translates, he said the root of the word, “ota,” is associated with the word for father.
“Is that because the fathers gather the moss?” I asked expectantly.
“Not necessarily,” he said. Men might collect moss sometimes but it is usually the women who gather it because they also use it in the moon lodge where the women spend their menstrual periods, singing, talking, praying and hanging out with each other while seated on pads of sphagnum. (Modern women tell me it is hard to use sphagnum if they remain active.)
This root word, “ota,” he went on to say, is a word that implies presence, meaning something like “right here” or “being there.” I thought about how fatherhood had imbued the words “presence” and “being there” with new meaning for me.
The word for sphagnum, “otaow,” he told me, would translate out to mean “protectively holds” or “embraces.”
“Is that because it’s used for diapers,” I asked.
“Not necessarily,” he replied (again), explaining that it is more because of the way the sphagnum covers the ground — like a carpet in some moist areas, growing over rocks and logs and everything — protectively holding the Earth Mother.
When I would protectively embrace and hold my young son in my arms, I would sometimes think about our responsibility to protectively hold all that we touch. When I think about that spongy wad of sphagnum moss in our son’s diaper, I marvel at the vast millions of acres of sphagnum moss that are currently embracing our planet, protectively holding, and ever so gently, softly, controlling the flow of the countless trillions of gallons of water that drain boreal land masses all around the globe.
That wad of sphagnum tucked in our child’s diaper, containing the fluids and mopping up our own baby’s nether regions seemed like a wonderful parallel – sort of a microcosm of what is happening on our planet every day.
How (and Where) to Gather Sphagnum Moss for Diapers
To gather sphagnum moss for baby diapers, it should be picked as clean as possible and promptly dried. When gathering moss I generally carry a tarp or large drop cloth, a pillowcase and /or a pack basket with me into a bog area. Late spring and early summer seem to be ideal times to gather because there is a lot of new tender growth. Boots, amphibious sandals or wading shoes are recommended. In the boggy areas where sphagnum is found, it usually grows as the first layer of vegetation, anywhere from a few inches to a foot or more in depth. It forms a moist, fluffy substrate with various other plants poking through. These might be tufted sedges, delicate flowering orchids, exotic looking pitcher plants, robust red cranberries, or low thickets of pink-flowering sheep laurel and wooly-leaved Labrador Tea. Sometimes sphagnum moss will completely cover a partially submerged fallen log or creep up the base of a tree trunk. The best places to gather the moss are the more open areas where it grows in thick clumps or beds. From areas like these you can pull one handful after another and still leave large amounts to regenerate. When gathering moss, (or any natural resource) it is important to diffuse your impact, taking a few handfuls from one clump then moving to another. Of course it is important not to gather in an area where the moss is not common. You will see, however, that in areas where moss is abundant, you can pick for a few hours in a relatively small area and there will still be so much moss left that it will be difficult to tell where you have harvested. Pick the moss as cleanly as possible, removing pine needles and other bits of debris when you find them. (There will be more opportunities to do this when you spread it out to dry later.) When I pull the moss, if the bottom of the clump is muddy where it was rooted in the bog, I cut or break this part off. I collect the moss in a gathering basket or a sack. When this container is full I carry it to the edge of the bog, ideally to a sunny area, and spread the moss out on a clean tarp or large cloth and go back for more. The moss dries amazingly fast if it is spread thinly. If tarp space is limited and the moss is piled rather thickly it will still dry in a day or two, especially if you turn it regularly and break apart the moist clumps. A few hours of gathering and a day or two of careful drying can yield several months’ worth of sphagnum. The use of a tarp is important to keep the moss clean and away from contact with the soil. This will virtually eliminate the risks of sporotrichosis, a fungal infection that sometimes affects greenhouse workers who work with sphagnum. Recent studies indicate that the offending fungus, Sporothrix schenckii, lives in the soil. It has not been found (and apparently will not grow) on living sphagnum moss. It can be a problem, however, in greenhouses where the dead moss is mixed with water and dirt and allowed to stand for extended periods in a heated environment.
sphagum mossIn the 1730’s the great Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus, observed, “The Lapland matrons are well acquainted with [sphagnum] moss. They lay it in their children’s cradles to supply the place of bed, bolster, and every covering; and being changed night and morning, it keeps the infant remarkably clean, dry, and warm … and makes a most delicate nest for the new-born babe.”
Though some of our friends lay the sphagnum moss on a cotton diaper, we find that a moss filled nylon diaper cover works best for us. To prepare for diapering, open the diaper cover and place it on a flat surface. Place a couple handfuls of the moss in the diaper cover and arrange it “strategically” (more in front for boys). Examine the moss carefully to be sure it is free of leaves, pine needles and other potentially uncomfortable debris. (I press the moss into place with the back of my hand to be sure it is soft and free of projections.) Sometimes we use different “grades” of moss. The softest moss is reserved for the inner layer and the rest is used as the “backfill”. Sometimes we place a few sheets of toilet paper on top to cover the moss.
Then we set the babe down onto the moss and fasten the diaper up as gracefully as possible. Since managing a squirmy baby on an easily scatterable pile of moss is not always easy, having an extra person helping usually makes it easier. (We call it “tag team diapering.”) Once the diaper is fastened we found that training pants or rubber pants help hold the whole assembly together. The moss seems to wick moisture away from the baby’s skin and the tiny dry particles of moss act almost like a talcum powder so that his skin stays smooth and dry. Feces is absorbed and enclosed in a wad of moss. Because of these properties as well as the fact that the moss is slightly acidic and is reported to contain small amounts of iodine, sphagnum can be helpful to prevent and heal diaper rash.
We used moss primarily as a travel diaper and it was amazingly simple. We could go for weeks with only a stuff bag full of moss and two or three nylon diaper covers. While one cover was on the babe, the other, after being rinsed was drying out. Our youngster, as fussy as he was about diapering in general, never did develop an aversion to the sphagnum. When he got to older toddlerhood, he would even help us tuck the loose pieces of moss into his diaper cover.
Of course using such an unusual method of diapering does leave you open to a few raised eyebrows as well as the occasional wisecrack. One friend watched us undo our son’s diaper. When he saw the huge wad of soggy moss he asked, “Don’t you think that boy has a little too much fiber in his diet?”
“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.
Guerillo cut slabs of golden honeycombThe 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.
After hauling the heavy buckets of honey down the trail we met up with Regino.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.)
Guerillo works at the hive.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”?
Guerillo perches in the ledge beside the hive.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.
Guerillo calms the hive with smoke.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.
Guerillo with a slab of honeycomb”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.
Guerillo leans into his work cutting slabs of honeycomb.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.
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