The Honey Collectors

Article excerpt

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In the West African republic of Cameroon, young people unable to find work in the city, are returning to the countryside and continuing the age-old tradition of farming honey from wild bees. And conservationists are encouraging the practice as it means that the remains of the great forests once found in the Adamawa region will be protected rather than cut down for timber.

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PREVIOUS SPREAD: a honey collector reaches for a hive at night. His chest and legs are bare to avoid being stung by angry bees that might get caught in his clothing. Most honey harvesting takes place at night when the bees are less active. A torch made from flaming dried grass leaves is used to encourage the bees to take refuge at the back of the hive while the harvester reaches inside to collect the honey comb; OPPOSITE: a honey collector dressed in a protective suit made from a type of wood that contains a bee-repellent substance climbs more than 15 metres above the ground during a daytime honey harvesting session. Daytime harvests are now a rarity in Cameroon--they were common during periods of war, when fighters would spend weeks hiding in the forests living off honey, water and wild yams--but the traditional knowledge is still passed down from generation to generation; ABOVE LEFT: a honey harvester collects a honeycomb with his bare hands. The comb is placed in a hand made raffia basket lined with banana leaves to keep the honey cool and fresh. The scaffolding on which he is standing is constructed on location using wood from the local area and raffia the harvesters have brought with them. Although the construction of the climbing frame can take hours, the actual harvesting takes only a few minutes. The collectors move rapidly up and down the wood-and-raffia frames without safety ropes. The collector's bare hands are rubbed with the same wood that is used to construct his protective suit. The bee-repellent sap provides limited protection against stings and the collectors will often return to the ground with numerous stings. The African honeybee (Apis mellifera scutellata), a subspecies native to Central and West Africa, is notoriously aggressive. Although its stings are not actually any more venomous than those of the European honeybee, it will attack intruders much more quickly and chase them for a longer distance from the hive. If a honey collector receives more than 100 stings they may die, although most deaths from bee attacks tend to occur when someone has received more than S00 individual stings. If attacked, there is little that a harvester can do other than attempt to outrun the swarm; ABOVE RIGHT: a collection of harvested honey combs on the forest floor. These combs have been taken from both wild hives located in trees and man-made hives placed in the trees earlier in the year. The harvesters will often reward themselves with a small taste of honey straight from the comb before they transport the remainder of the harvest back to the village

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ABOVE: honey is squeezed out of a crushed comb using a bare hand. Modern honey producers usually remove the honey from the comb using a centrifuge, a machine that rapidly spins the comb, flinging the honey out of its wax compartments, but in Cameroon, the honey is generally removed either by hand or using a wooden press. Honey is harvested throughout Cameroon, and the country's wide variety of habitats--which range from montane forests to sub-savannah plains--results in many different types of honey, including a dark, smoky brown type generated from the vegetation in the lowland tropical forests and a creamy granulated type from the high mountains. Adamawa province, the mountainous region where these photographs were taken, was once heavily forested, but hundreds of years of bush burning and cattle herding have turned the area over to savannah, and nomadic cattle rearing is still the main form of farming. …

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