Way back in February 2014, when I was still a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was lucky enough to be selected to go to a Peace Corps beekeeping training in the Gambia. (Check out my blog post on my experience here!) When I got back from my training, I made a beehive with some friends in Marshall and we put it in the bush. Our hive was colonized by bees, but then Ebola came and I was evacuated — I thought I would never see the honey. But as fate would have it, I’m here now in harvest season, and so I got to be a part of the harvest!
To harvest the honey, I introduced my friends at Marshall to Liberia Pure Honey. LPH is a Liberian-owned social enterprise started by my friends Kent and Landis at the Universal Outreach Foundation. They host workshops to train Liberian Beekeepers. They offer to visit the farmers’ apiaries to help them harvest. Then they will buy any honey that the farmers produce (at a very good price) which they package and sell in supermarkets in town.
My friends in Marshall could harvest the honey on their own, but by partnering with LPH they get training and a guaranteed buyer for their honey supply (at the best price you can find in Liberia!). It’s a super great deal for everyone involved!
I traveled to Marshall with Daniel and Aaron, two extension workers for LPH. Their job is to visit farmers and help them harvest and process their honey. They packed their motorbikes and we all headed toward Marshall.
I hopped on the bike behind Daniel.
When we got to Marshall, we looked for Dolo and Robert, the two friends I had started the hive with during Peace Corps. We met Dolo at the school house, but Robert had some other business to attend to so he was unable to attend.
We got all our supplies ready: We found some buckets to hold our harvest, then lit the smoker (smoke subdues the bees), put on our bee suits, and then went into the swamp to visit the hive.
Daniel took the lead operating on the hive, while Aaron smoked the bees. I walked around taking photos while they worked.
The hive was a little bit in disarray. Since the hive was hung with wire, and when the bees started filling it with honey, it got heavy and shifted. Many of the bars fell into the box, and the bees ended up spending a lot of extra energy to work around the the problem.
The hive was also severely “cross-combed”, that is, the bees constructed the combs in a slightly different direction from the top bars, meaning that we could not easily remove and replace many of the combs.
We went through comb by comb sorting the “capped” honey from the uncapped honey. When bees finish filling a comb with honey, they will seal it with a cap to preserve it. The capped honey has the lowest water content and will not spoil after it’s been harvested. Uncapped honey, by contrast, will start to ferment. Here’s a comb with a bunch of capped cells:
As we went through the hive,
We even found a queen cell! This cell is specially made to hatch a queen.
After going through the hive, we left a few combs behind (so the bees didn’t have to start from scratch) and put the box back together.
Back at the school house we all rested and started to munch on some of the honey. We were all soaked in sweat after being in our bee suits.
Here’s all the capped honey we harvested!
We went back to Dolo’s house to process the honey.
Daniel and Aaron brought a honey press with them, which we used to extract the honey.
We used a refractometer to check the water content of the honey. Our honey had a 21% water content, which was unfortunately too high to sell to LPH. (They only buy honey at 19% and below). But Dolo didn’t mind, as he already had all kinds of friends and family he wanted to bring the honey to. (And he also uses the honey to make traditional medicines).
We shared little bits of honeycomb with the children around too! We had quite the crowd. Aaron and Daniel shared their extensive knowledge about honey and beekeeping with the local community, even talking about how Egyptians used honey as a part of a certain embalming process.
The next day, we processed the wax. First we boiled it in water:
Then we strained it through a mesh into a water filled basin.
Then, after it cooled a bit, we took the pieces and remelted it.
And then finally poured the wax into a mold:
LPH will buy wax from the farmers too, but we left the wax with Dolo so he could use it as bait for more hives as he built them. Wax is a great way to attract bees to hives and encourage them to colonize!
Finally, Daniel and Aaron packed everything up and went off to their next harvest while I stayed behind at Marshall (I wanted to visit some more friends).
Dolo was so appreciative of the whole experience. “Today is a great day for me!” he kept saying. He was so excited to incorporate some of the methods shared by LPH into his traditional beekeeping. Daniel and Aaron took down his contact information, and told him he’d be added to their registry of beekeepers so he can continue his relationship with LPH. Dolo told them he had big plans to scale up the number of hives he was operating, and he looked forward to working more with them in the future.
For me, I was just happy I was able to see this project through to the harvest. There was something very healing about it for me — when I was uprooted from Marshall because of Ebola, it was a traumatic break in my relationship with my community, friends, and projects here. Even putting on the bee suits triggered a sort of flashback to the PPE (the white protective Ebola “space suits”) that I became so used to seeing during Ebola time. But in coming back to Marshall and reconnecting in this way, I’ve been able to find a sense of closure, a sort of tactile experience and reassurance that the cycles of harvest and growth are continuing post-Ebola.