Harvesting honey the old-fashioned way

Wild bee honey is the most expensive honey in the world. The Russian Republic of Bashkortostan is the only place on earth where wild honey harvesting has survived as a distinct profession.

A nature reserve, Shulgan Tash, was established in Bashkortostan for the purpose of preserving the rare Burzyan bee – a move that has also worked to protect the ancient profession.

A true wild bee keeper is a treasure trove of wisdom and skills. They are sure to know whether it has been a good year for the bees, what they are lacking, and when and how much honey to take. They never destroy the hollows, instead leaving behind enough honey for the bees to make it through the winter. They also try not to disrupt the neatly organized life of the bees and, in doing so, they eventually get better honey.

Since they are dealing with wild forest bees, honey gatherers must also be equipped with the knowledge of gamekeepers: martens and bears are known to love honey. Even in our times, honey gatherers run the risk of crossing paths with a bear: the hollows are located within nature reserves where wild animals roam free and undisturbed.

“We are always on the lookout for bears,” says Ramazan, a wild honey collector. He learned the trade from his father – the first honey collector in the nature reserve – and is now training his son. “The fact is, once a bear finds a hollow with a wild bee nest, it will not stop until it gets the honey. We must do something about it. Getting a game license is not easy, so we set up traps. We certainly feel bad about it, but what if we have to choose between one bear and a whole bee colony? It is a known fact that bears destroy the hives entirely, and every single bee dies.”

There is just one scourge worse than bears: people. Honey thieves will scrape out everything down to the last drop. They even fell trees to get to the hollows. Fortunately, this does not happen very often since finding a honey hollow out in the wilderness presents a real challenge.

Taste of freedom

The main difference between wild and domestic honey is in that there are no people to interfere in the process of “packaging” the wild honey. As we know, honey is the product of digestion of nectar by honey bees. All species of bees do it the same way. After this, however, wild and domestic bees go their separate ways.

In an apiary, the life of bees is managed by a person whose aim is to collect as much money as possible from each bee colony. Domesticated bees monotonously fill the honeycombs built into frames several times a year in a continuous production-line-like process. Meanwhile, wild bees are under no pressure. They choose their nesting sites themselves, and build their honeycombs from whatever is available – that is, from natural materials. Although it does take more time, the honey they eventually produce is not just natural, but is literally packed with enzymes, vitamins, amino acids and even hormones that are extremely beneficial for one’s health. Wild honey is also richer in bee bread and wax.

Furthermore, wild honey should only be collected once a year: in early September, when it is really ripe – not according to human judgment, but according to the bees, when they start to cap the honey before winter.

“This year has been bad, dry. And pests are abundant,” says Shulgan Tash Nature Reserve Director, Mikhail Kosarev, who has had his share of wild honey hunting. “We had to feed some of the colonies to help them through. To this end, we placed a tank of sugar syrup outside or inside the nest.”

Bee properties

A wild bee is a capricious insect; you cannot really force it into a hollow. All humans can do is help it make the choice by providing the most appealing hollow in the neighborhood.

“There was a whole separate tradition linked to it,” Mikhail Kosarev recalls. “First, a grandfather would choose an old tree that had been around for 150 years or so and  was thick and strong, cut its top off and put up a  tamga  – a family sign to show that the tree is taken. Then they would wait for 50 or 70 years, and the man's grandson would come and make a hollow. After that, they would wait a few more years for the hollow to dry up...”

The culture is almost totally extinct now, and they either use old hollows or place man-made hollows in tree logs which can be even more comfortable for the bees, like a house with all the necessary amenities.

In Bashkortostan, hollows are scattered across the vast territory of the Bashkortostan National Park, the Shulgan Tash Nature Reserve and the Altyn Solok (Golden Honey Hollow) Nature Reserve, a few kilometers apart. But most of them are in Shulgan Tash: some 400 hollows per 220 square kilometers of the protected area. Bees, however, nest only in roughly half of them. The density of two hollows per square kilometer naturally makes the job difficult for wild bee keepers, but it also brings certain advantages: the distance works to protect the bees not only from poachers, but also from contagious diseases.

World's most expensive honey

The ultimate goal of all the troubles wild bee keepers go to is the honey harvest. In a sense, it is the apotheosis of the job. In one harvesting day, they can collect 15-25 kilograms of honey. Wild honey has a long shelf life, and the farther the distance from the place it was collected, the higher the price. Today, wild bee honey is the most expensive variety in the world.

The honey currently costs 50 euros ($65) per kilogram in shops in the Shulgan Tash Reserve or in the town of Starosubkhangulovo close to the Altyn Solok Nature Reserve. In Moscow, prices sting just like the wild bees, ranging from 120 to 200 euros ($156 to $260) per kilogram.

In 2013, they opened “honey tours” around the Sulgan Tash Nature Reserve: tourists are welcome to come to the forest, watch wild bee keepers go about their jobs, and even filter and bottle the honey themselves.

A kilogram of honey from the tour costs more than 60 euros ($78), but the price includes transportation to the reserve, a guide, and a camping meal cooked in a cauldron. More importantly, it is an excellent chance to see an ancient trade in action -- a trade that has helped many generations of Bashkirs survive. It’s no coincidence that in Burzyan folk tales the fool is invariably the man who has a lot of cattle but few honey hollows.

The Shulgan Tash Reserve is situated on the southern foothills of the Urals and its mountainous nature provides protection against the industrial exploitation of its forests.

For photos contact the photographer

First published in Russian in strana.ru

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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