Money, Honey

About the Author

Paul Thomson worked with African Wildlife Foundation in Nairobi for a year before moving to Washington D.C. Paul has worked at the Madrid Aquarium and at the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands outside San Francisco. He was born in New Zealand but grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Paul… More

The plan was for me to meet some bee-keepers in northern Kenya. Report on the AWF project, take some photos. I never would have guessed I’d end up in the bee suit.

First, some background. I’m in Maralal, a small town in northern Samburu district that hugs a large intact forest block called Kirisia Forest. In the past, people have put a lot of pressure on the forest, felling trees to get at natural bee hives.

To reduce pressure on the forest, AWF has given 300 modern Langstroth bee hives to bee-keepers from four communities around Kirisia as a way to trigger forest-friendly enterprise. The premise is simple: bees make honey, honey makes money, and bees need healthy trees to make that honey. So, if given the chance, people will conserve the forest and can sell honey for good cash to boot.

Steve examining a traditional log hive. These hives produce less honey of lower quality.

One of the modern Langstroth hives. AWF gave Samburu bee-keepers 300 of these hives.

I visited the homestead of John Leadra, who invited me to see the hives he received from AWF. I was with Steve Lelegwe, the manager of the local honey refinery, and David Kinanta, a young, energetic community conservation assistant. They thought it would be a great idea to put me in a bee suit and see what happens.

John suited up, handing me rubber gloves and the mesh hat without a word. “Don’t I need some special training or something?” I asked.

“It’s ok, it’s night-time. The bees are calm,” they told me with suspiciously big grins.

John had a small hand-held aluminum smoker which he applied to one of the hives to calm the bees. We removed the lid, pulled out the wooden frames which hold the honeycombs, and shook the bees free.

Collecting honey

The sound of bees is both soothing and terrifying. Having bees swarming inches from my face, clinging to the mesh of my bee hat was disturbing, and I fought to stay calm. Are they on the outside or inside? How am I going to react if they get in?

Luckily for me, they didn’t get in. The bees flew around, rather cranky that two funny looking giants showed up to rip open their house and take their honey. We finished collecting the honey combs and replaced the frames and lid and let them be.

John Leadra shook my hand vigorously, thanking me for what AWF has brought him. Steve translated. “The hives AWF bought me has enabled me to make enough money to send my two children to school. And I’ve been able to buy four cows,” he beamed. “See that irrigation machine? The honey bought me that too. Anything AWF brings cannot go away.”

Those words stuck with me. It was amazing to see how a small investment like a few hives has enabled this man to send his kids to school.

John Leadra was able to send his children to school with money made from the honey.

Kinanta was a bit more disappointed. “I can’t believe you didn’t get stung! I was hoping you would get at least one good sting, so you can have a good story.” I think I got a good story anyway.