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Weekly Edition 070: Saturday 29th June 2002

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Island Ecology
by José P Ribas

Bees - Part Six

I have no doubts now that working with bees helps to form the character of the beekeeper.

All the books about bees and apiculture tell us about the sort of qualities that a good beekeeper should have to obtain the best result of this - for some - passionate task. 

They are qualities that we all appreciate in a person, that develop and grow with practice and time.

Good doses of patience, time and effort, capacity of observation, curiosity and will for the learning, profound knowledge of the environment and nature, respect and the proper behaviour for the bees and sincere love for life in general.

Those are some of the qualities that a good beekeeper must have if he wants to succeed in this job, rather a large and deep partnership between the bees and its keeper, collaborating together for the benefit of both, in perfect harmony with Nature, helping it to its own evolution.    

Qualities that, without doubt, José Planells, “Pep Cudulá” our beekeeper and friend from Sant Llorenç possesses. (I bet you would agree if you were with me in his finca, sitting in front of the house that Pep built, with an excellent glass of “vino payés” - his own home-made wine - kindly offered to us by his wife.  It’s lovely to observe the enormous amount of work he has done on their land in his “spare time”, when he wasn’t working as a master-bricklayer, his everyday, official job.

What used to be an unproductive piece of land, crossed by a small torrent, is nowadays built up with terraces of dry-stone-walls.

There’s a beautiful plantation of several hundred fruit trees, mostly different kinds of oranges and lemons and a vineyard, but also a good variety of others, as well as a kitchen garden where they plant potatoes and a large selection of other greens and vegetables. After they’ve eaten what they want, they sell the rest to the local co-operative. Then there are the fields for cattle-foot, sheep, goats, pigs, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, pigeons, etc., that they also have and look after, all in perfect condition. All this is done by the family, husband, wife and one only son. All that can be said is: “Pep, Chapeau!” 

View across the plantation from the finca Can Pep Cudulá

Pep Cudulá retired from his official job two years ago, at the age of sixty-five, though for his physical conditions he doesn’t show this age. He is still full of tranquil energy and now he’s got the time to do what he likes best and spend more time looking after the bees.

Today he is going to collect a new swarm that has appeared in his forest, near his own hives, and has invited me to go with him to see all the process.

He changes his clothes slowly, puts on his protective overall, the gloves and a hat with the net and tells me to do the same. “Our local black-bees are quite aggressive and can be really dangerous; it takes them a bit of time to get used to the keeper and the new hives. This is way we need to be well-protected, and also we need the “smoker” - a kind of “coffee-pot” with a blower - because the smoke calms down the bees, so we can operate with them with the minimum stress for them as well”.

He grabs the smoker, full of dry, rotten carob-tree wood. “It’s the best for this job”, he says, and we both start walking to the forest.

On the way, we stop at the back of the yard where he keeps a special kind of marrow, “Carabassa beyera.” Dry and no good to eat, even for the cattle, it is shaped like a big deformed bottle, with a capacity of about ten litres or more when empty of its seeds. It has just a hole as an entrance, big enough to pass the hand inside. It is used on the Island only for this specific job, collecting the swarms, and Pep also picks up a couple of lemons from the tree.

Pep Cudulá with Carabassa Beyera

“Bees are very intelligent creatures. They soon find out the real intentions of anyone getting near them. They don’t cope with noisy and nervous people and neither with the greedy ones that only go the hive to collect the honey, without looking after them and not taking care of it the rest of the time,” he says. It is his way of telling me to be tranquil and with a natural attitude. This is not my first swarm, but I know that if we don’t do the thing properly we may lose it, as we haven’t seen it yet and we don’t know exactly where, and in what condition it is.

“Hives are not just concentration camps for the bees, or only productive factories. They have to be a proper home for them, clean, healthy and peaceful, with a good stock of pollen and honey left for them to eat. If those rules are not kept or we steal most of their honey, the bees will abandon the miserable and unhealthy hive, looking for a better place to live”.

We don’t have to walk for too long inside the forest. Soon, in a small open area, we start watching a good number of bees flying all one way close to each other, slowly and very low, “The explorers” he says, stopping to observe the direction that they came from.

Then he turns around and walks a few steps in the opposite direction. “Here they are,” he says, pointing his finger to the heart of a pine tree about eight or ten metres away from us. It took me a bit longer to spot them, but I also could see them as I went closer. A boiling, living-mass, the size of a good melon, was resting on one of the main branches, near the trunk, about a metre above our hearts.    

“We have been lucky; the swarm is concentrated and quiet, but they will move soon. We have to act fast and calm, before the bees get dispersed, winging away”, Pep says. Then, cutting the lemons in halves, he rubs and cleans the inside of the marrow and around its entrance hole with them, until the entire marrow smells nicely of fresh lemons. He rests it afterwards three or four metres from the swarm and we both move to observe a little away so as not to be a disturbance.

“This is a good swarm for our Islands, more then two kilos, perhaps three; that means about twenty five or thirty thousands bees, not too bad at all.

“It must be the first newly-formed swarm. There can be more swarms from the same hive after the first one, eight days later, and even more after, but they are not as big as this one.

“If we keep being lucky they will move inside the marrow by themselves. If not, we will have to work harder and the success is not guaranteed if the bees start to disperse. The difficulty is then to stop them and wait for them to form the swarm in a ball again”.    

But this must have been our lucky day. In about half an hour there was a good number of bees sitting upon the marrow, by its entrance and exploring its inside, Fifteen minutes later the entire swarm with its queen was on top, covering most of it and getting in slowly. Then, Pep used the smoker, blowing a few blows of acrid smoke on top of the marrow. The bees rushed then inside of it and not even one was left outside.

Pep Cudulá taking care of his Bees

The job was done. All that was left to do was to take the marrow with the bees inside to their new home, a hive that Pep had already prepared, next to the rest of his hives, in which he carefully emptied the marrow, putting the top on it straight away. The bees still stoned and happy with the free smoke they had, remained peacefully inside of it   

Later on, after another glass of wine, when it was already getting dark, Pep surprised me again. It was a very clear night when even the Moon didn’t show yet, but it was perfect to watch the stars and also an exceptional spring to observe the planets. He started then to point out all the ones that could be seen, as well as the most known stars, situating each one of them in the right constellation where they were. He seems to know the sky map as well as he knows so many other things. He’s a man of his age, who just learnt to read and write for a couple of years in one of the local schools; someone who started working hard when he was just a child. Always with modesty, always ready to learn, always with a good will and ready to share his knowledge. So much to learn, I don’t know what to say... Maybe the only thing that he expects on my return. Thank you very much, and again: Chapeau!

The lane leading out of the finca Can Pep Cudulá

All Pictures © Copyright Gary Hardy (March 2002)

José P Ribas

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