By Peter Stromberg
When he walked to the edge of the manicured lawn I could tell that something had caught his attention. At first I assumed he spotted an exotic bird or a sun bathing iguana as he stared intently into the bushes. I stared with him. “What are we looking at?” I was wondering. Was it the plants? After some time I asked and he said that there’s honey in those bushes, he pointed about 20 meters away. “Could he smell the sweet nectar?” I wondered. He said, “Look at all the bees.” At first glance as I looked a little closer I could see a random insect fly by here and there. As I looked longer I could see a faint pattern form. The bees were consistently flying through the same opening in the dense bush, like a bee highway. It took me about five minutes to really focus and see what Jair was seeing. He explained that at the end of that “road” is their hive, and that's where the honey stash would be. Little did I know that he planned on climbing down there and getting that honey.
After the venom started entering my blood stream I could feel my face start swelling up immediately. Like after you get punched in the nose hard and your whole face feels bigger. My chin, neck and cheek had been stung. I was hit. I counted four stings and I knew that I was about to be in trouble if I panicked. The urge to run was overwhelming only superseded by the urge to smash the vicious creatures that were stuck in my beard and repeatedly injecting their poison in me, but you can’t smash ‘em. A brief childhood memory flashed in my mind, my brother and I always had a rule of no face punches while fighting. No punching in the face! I thought to the bees.
My body was about to start betraying my orders, involuntary action was the next step. Time was running out. I could feel my feet getting ready to run whether I wanted them to or not, my legs vibrating, twitching like a racehorse in the starting gates. “Focus”, I thought, “It’s just a little sting.”
Jair had told me, “Whatever happens, do NOT smash the bees, they release a chemical that the other bees can smell and then the whole hive comes after you.” Being attacked and choosing not to defend yourself or react is not an easy task. Each sting seemed to be stronger than the last as the venom compounded in my system. Previous stings had always landed on my hand or arm, this was my first face sting of many face stings and I don’t find them as pleasant as getting stung on other “tougher” parts of the body.
The laughter from the honey hunters broke my singular focus on the pain of the stings; a smile crossed my face. I realized that I had my eyes closed for longer than just a blink. I opened my eyes to see Jair’s shirtless back with a hand size patch of bees crawling on him.
He was laughing in earnest as he stuck his head into the hole in the ground where the bees had their honey factory set up. The other fellas blew smoke in my face to help the bees move on in a calm manner, reluctantly they stopped stinging but were still having a hard time making their way out of my beard. I could feel them crawling around, feeling helpless as I couldn’t help them along. “Don’t panic”, I thought, “It’s almost over.” Just then my lungs rejected the smoke that I was breathing and I exploded into an uncontrolled coughing fit. They laughed harder and my coughing turned into laughing, eventually.
As the pain subsided in my neck and chin area, I was treated with a parting gift from the last bee at the fiesta. The bee hit me with his stinger on the eyebrow just to help me even out the swelling and make it more dramatic. My rapidly swelling forehead slid over my left eye and within 3 minutes I could have been that handsome guy from the Goonies twin brother. The guys finished digging out the hive and pumping smoke into the hole to subdue the colony. One unified buzz, 1,000’s of insects panicking and flying around filled the smoky atmosphere. Bzzzz. Comb after honeycomb was extracted from the enormous crater that had been hollowed out by the bees.
Whenever I picture people harvesting honey, the bee keepers always seem to be dressed in those stark white bee suits and big spacious helmets with screens for easy vision and breathing. They look like with a couple minor adjustments they could be ready to go with NASA astronauts to the moon. I fully imagined these new friends of mine to have those types of suits when they said they’d come back with “equipment” to harvest the honey. As they walked up with simple t-shirts wrapped around their face like a couple ninjas and shorts I knew I was in for a treat. The “equipment” consisted of a t-shirt wrapped around their head, only exposing their eyes; in addition to another t-shirt that they were actually wearing as a shirt and shorts. Not Jair. He took the shirt off that he was wearing to wrap around his head. “The bees must not have stingers,'' I remember thinking to myself. Normally my encounters with this bee were very relaxed, I didn’t bother them and they stuck to themselves. However, now our intention was not to just watch them fly by, we were going into their homes to commit an armed robbery; like a group of sweet toothed thugs robbing a 7/11 in some greasy city.
The people that live in Manabí and work the land or fish the oceans are my favorite people on earth. They are hearty and generous, kind and quick to smile; much like any peoples that live off of the sweat of their brow and in rhythm with the elements. The central coast of Ecuador is a very special place where significant traces of ancient civilizations and structures that rival Machu Picchu have recently been discovered. There is an old history of living with the land and harvesting the fruits of the forest and ocean. From extensive terracing and irrigation marvels to constructing tidal fishing traps that still function today, the pre-Columbian civilization of the central coast of Ecuador thrived in their natural environment. Although much time has passed between the ancient Mantenos and today's current civilization their spirit lives on through the symbiotic relationship that exists between the “gente del campo” and mother nature.
Jair and his group of buddies live off a typical middle class income in Manabí. Jair owns a plant nursery/landscaping company in San Jacinto here on the coast of Manabí. Minimum wage in Ecuador is around $450 a month and most people that don’t have a title make around that or less. That keeps the older “food” traditions alive and well; like using the entire animal as nothing goes to waste. The first time you get an entire chicken foot in your soup you’ll know what I mean. Fishing to put food on the table is different than going out with a case of Budweiser and some worms; no catch…no dinner. It seems to me that the best food I’ve ever eaten is always prepared by the people that are part of their own food process. From growing pigs to growing fruit, people that produce food have a special way of preparing their craft. Whether it’s spear fishing in the rivers around central Manabí, to exploring/gathering from the dry forest around Jaramijó, these guys are looking for food. Honey is a commodity that doesn’t spoil and wild honey can fetch a very lucrative price if it can make it to the right markets.
During the recent economic downturn due to the pandemic Jair has had to turn to some creative ways to bring home the bacon, so to speak. Honey hunting has been a steady source of supplemental income during the more challenging times, not to mention these guys would rather be nowhere else than romping around the forest looking for their treasure, talking shit the entire time. I knew from past experiences that it was going to be interesting watching these guys harvest the honey with their low-tech gear, I didn’t realize that I’d be there up close and personal.
Although the harvest didn’t produce as much as I thought my stings were worth, it was some of the best tasting honey I’ve tried. Eating fresh honey and smashing the wax honey comb up in your teeth, that must be one of the oldest pleasures known to humans. That flavor and texture is something that connects with our DNA and pulls on our smile muscles. Think about tasting honey and you feel warm and memories start popping up, it triggers familiarity. It's a primal sensation, the taste of honey. The rich flavor heightened maybe when you have no less than 8 fresh bee stings from your neck to your scalp.
If you get the chance to try some wild honey from the markets in Ecuador I highly recommend it. It’s not easy to come by for the people that harvest it and is worth a bit more due to the physical effort and stings that it takes to acquire. The unique flavors are something that you can’t find in the honey from the grocery store. A lot of times honey vendors just happen to be selling their product at local markets on the weekends in recycled liquor bottles. Although at first sight the presentation can be a little different than what you’re used to, it is usually from the immediate area and will taste like the dominant blooms at the time. Bees that are harvested around avocado trees have different flavored honey than bees that produce honey in the eucalyptus forest.
Because of the uniqueness of this dry tropical rainforest, the flavors that come out of the honey here can’t be replicated. The flavor comes from the forest and most of the plants that are found here are not found on other parts of the globe because of the merging of two climates and ocean currents.
But remember; if you get invited on a honey hunt, stay by the smoke.