I certainly never dreamed of coming across the terms bee ambassador or bee enthusiast. And yet, both of them were frequently and proudly being bandied about at the Indigenous Terra Madre event in India. At the 140 tribe gathering organized by Slow Food there was a huge number of beekeepers from all over the word and North East India itself, where the congress was held, is an area internationally acclaimed as being a knowledge centre for beekeeping.
During the festival, there were plenty of opportunities to taste indigenous honey – almost every time we happened to be holding a bamboo spoon - but none were so mind blowing as the taste workshop dedicated to honey, which witnessed the participation of producers from four different tribes, three from North East India (Garo Hills, East Khasi Hills, Nagaland) and one from the most southerly point of Tamil Nadu.
The 16 tribes inhabiting these lush green hills have always lived happily alongside the bees, which have found their ideal habitat and a paradise for buzzing creatures in the scarcely populated forests where pesticides are practically unheard of.
The numbers are frankly quite impressive: 12,000 beekeepers, 40,000 bee colonies. A heritage of knowhow which, nonetheless, has yet to be classified or even made safe. Not only in terms of hygiene: rock bees, for instance are a species living in the rocks whose honey is collected by men who sometimes need to climb to considerable heights, using their bare hands without any form of protection.
Bitter and therapeutic honey
This “rock” honey has a flavour that is much more bitter than any other type of honey we have ever tasted, quite different from the tangy variety produced by the Stingless Bee, or the sour type coming from the colonies living underground. Their almost medicinal aftertastes indicate the therapeutic properties of these varieties in a way that makes our “teaspoon of honey for a cold” look quite ineffectual.
In this part of the world, honey is rubbed onto snake bites, used to cure conjunctivitis (even though the method explained to us was not quite clear) and recommended to sufferers of gastritis and constipation: to understand its importance for these tribes, suffice it to say that, before proceeding to extract it, beekeepers carry out a purification ceremony.
Rare Honeys and Biodiversity
In the meantime, our foray into the world of beekeeping takes us to the opposite end of the country, to the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, as we taste a teaspoonful of Kurinji honey from the eponymous flower: an extremely delicate blue blossom which blooms every twelve years and from which the bees produce an intensely sweet, black-coloured honey.
However, the tasting of rare honey is not only a question of foodie hedonism. For a good many years now, the diminishing bee population has been associated with the decline of biodiversity: pollution, the extension of single crop farming and the loss of plant species are just some of the reasons why the number of bees is decreasing and causing a chain effect. Bearing in mind that there are about 22,000 bee species on our planet, the purchase of a jar of this sweet yellow substance from our supermarket seems to be such a restricted and restricting thing to do.
From India to Mexico
At the end of the congress, up on stage goes Leonardo Duran Olguín, Coordinator of theTosepan Titataniske Cooperativeon the Sierra Norte in Mexico. He has no honey for us to taste, nothing but words and images to recount the honey of “pitsilnekmej”, a species whose communities live in the mancuernas, hives inside clay pots. When the honey of these bees is extracted, it is then put back inside the mancuernas and left to ferment for months, until it becomes an acidic product used by the indigenous communities as food and medicine, but practically impossible to trade.
As he talks, a Moroccan gentleman sitting next to me, fidgets on his chair: there is no translation available in French, the language he speaks, and he is unable to fully understand the explanation in English. I do what I can to describe to him how honey is obtained from the pitsilnekmej (taking great care to avoid pronouncing the name) and he compares it with the methods he uses for his own bees, the mellifera sahariana which manages to survive extreme desert temperatures. Finally, we are both worn out by this three-way linguistic exercise – and by the excessive gesticulation we Mediterranean people are prone to.
“Merci”, he thanks me at the end “Even if it is difficult to set them up, we ought to have more meetings like this. A worldwide réseau des apiculteurs (beekeepers’ network) is what we need. We all understand the language of bees”.