Agave stems put the sting into successful beekeeping
Former commercial apiarist shows how SA could be turned into a land of honey
Twenty years ago, Neil Rusch — then a commercial beekeeper — sold his apiary of 130 hives. For a decade the bees had provided pollination services to the Western Cape deciduous fruit-growing industry, producing several tonnes of honey per season. But Rusch had become “disillusioned with what the agricultural industry imposed on bees — the regime of poison and mechanical operations”.
His decision left a hive-shaped hole. But it was also this void that birthed Rusch’s unique agave log hive, inspired by tree beekeeping and sculptor Guenther Muncke’s sun hive. Rusch was looking for a more natural form of beekeeping “when the agave log hive presented itself as an ideal solution”..
Rusch has been drawn to bees ever since he first saw them streaming into a rock cavity where they had a nest.
In his “Honey Song” paper, Rusch writes that while bees have preferences, they will “exploit all sorts of situations”. They have been known to make their hives in abandoned termite nests, burrows of aardvark or porcupine, and the hollowed-out trunks and branches of baobab trees.
Using basic tools, Rusch’s hives are made from hollowed-out agave stems and look more like surreal, plump-bellied sculptures. The hives are made entirely of natural material and in keeping with this theme, they follow an organic design. Within a week of their installation, the first bees moved in and Rusch’s new beekeeper incarnation began.
I first saw the agave log hives in the established trees of Rusch’s spacious garden suspended 5m feet above the ground. It was a synchronistic occasion as I was on my way to Platbos, looking forward to an experience in an Apimodule, or a small wooden house (common in Yugoslavian beekeeping), where one can ease out to the background sound of many hives accompanied by the very particular smell of honey and propolis through little mesh openings.
In the same garden Rusch also demonstrates his facsimiles of the woer-woer and !goin !goin (bullroarers). These musical instruments are a link between bees and Rusch’s archaeological interests as a research associate with the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies at Wits University. The |Xam Bushmen instruments, made of bone or wood and leather string, are free aerophones because they “vibrate” the air through their spinning motion. It is said that the !goin !goin — which creates a surround sound similar to being in a swarm of bees — enabled the |Xam to “move bees to other people’s places”. The !goin !goin has a second role which involves ritual, as the ‘buzzing’ sound encourages people to enter a trance state and dance the healing dance.
Although religious texts suggest that the world began with the word, I have often wondered if “the word” should be replaced with “sound”. That perhaps the world began with sound or vibration.
As indicated in many cultures, bees have captured the human imagination.
This is apparent in SA. Rusch points out that in |Xam mythology honey signals a relationship with bees and honey, which are deeply embedded in its beliefs and culture. In |Xam lore, honey is viewed as a creative substance.
For example, Rusch describes how Mantis created the first eland by soaking a leather sandal in water and feeding it honey. Honey is also essential in the creation of the antelope and provides its colours, when its hide is rubbed with honey of various kinds and tints. The importance of the bee and honey in San culture can be seen in the many paintings in the Drakensberg, southern Cape and Zimbabwe.
Bees played a part in the life of SA’s first postliberation president. When Pippa Green, the newly elected press ombudsman, interviewed Nelson Mandela In 2013 for the New York Times, he told her how a swarm of honey bees had attacked him in his bathroom. Rusch interprets how bees (iinyosi) that take up residence in a Xhosa homestead are known as indwendwe (guests) and are perceived to have a special link to the ancestors (amadlozi), the living dead.
Bees have roots in many cultures and there is a rich indigenous knowledge in our country, but as Rusch points out, historically this has not translated into an economic outcome, as it might. Rusch believes that the inexpensive, easy to make agave hive has potential for creating livelihoods since it is inexpensive to set up. He also sees the agave hive as a catalyst that will encourage communities to draw on their knowledge about bees and local habitat.
Rusch’s agave hive democratises the practice of beekeeping as well as utilising an invasive species. He gives an example of a man from rural Lesotho, who, after hearing about the agave hive, contacted Rusch explaining that there were many agave trees in his village and inquiring about the building technique for the hive.