We open the hive and at least 100 bees hit my face like bullets. Around me, I hear the sound of hail pounding a rooftop, but it’s actually just the noise of bees nailing my head.
Approximately two minutes ago an errant bee stung my arm and Mehmet Bey lightly suggested that I wear a bee suit. If I hadn’t taken his advice, my face would now be pulp. The bees dart for my hands and my camera. I curl in my fingers and I can feel the flesh swell beneath the crunch and hum of stingers and bee-wings. Now the new target, my camera bears their wrath.
We are in Ardahan, the bucolic forgotten sister region of Kars. I arrived earlier by dolmuş (minibus) without a plan. Although I look like I could be Turkish, I am distinctly foreign: my haircut, the way I walk, my gray running shoes, my sunglasses. The details are seemingly obsolete, but everyone notices my strangeness and they turn their heads to watch. When all eyes are steadily following your every move, what do you do? My general rule is to walk slowly, but with intention, and do one of two things: either head to higher ground, or take refuge in a restaurant.
Feeling like I have been dropped into the middle of a spectator circle, I reflect on how similar bees and humans are. Both social creatures, they define the bounds of their community based on what is foreign and what is familiar. For bees, everything is about smell. They smell their queen, their hive, and each other. They also smell fear and anything that is foreign or different. So success with bees relies on being calm, and letting them just get used to you, your smell, and your presence. Small towns in Turkey can be the same way. You have to make a smooth entrance; letting people get a good look at you and then you must act predictably, slowly make your way into the flow of local life, into familiarity.
I visit the castle, I order tea at a restaurant, and then I enter the streets to do my work: finding the bees, beekeepers, and honey of Ardahan. Many of the stores offer the same honey and brand names as those in Kars. However one storefront is clearly very old, and exclusively features beekeeping supplies in the windows. A hand written sign advertising queen bees for sale tells me much more. These are long-time bee people. Peeking my head inside, I introduce myself to its occupants. “Hello, I am a visitor from America. I live in Kars. But I am here to learn more about bees and honey.” Pause. A kind man named Gokhan Bey kindly welcomes me, “lucky for you, the expert is right here” he introduces his father, Agabey.
Agabey is easily in his 70’s. He wears a Turkish flat cap, which was the replacement of the Osmanli fez 87 years ago when Turkey was founded. He has owned his shop since the 1960’s and has kept bees his entire life. He learned the trade from his father, who learned from his grandfather. I ask him about beekeeping stories, and karakovan (the famous dark circular hives of Northeastern Turkey). His Turkish is thick with Russian words, customary of this region. I understand little of what he says, but I can tell that such a history and wealth of knowledge lies in this shop. He shows me his old wax-making machine, which is now retired, and we talk about where the most pure Kafkas bees live. My brain is suddenly swept in a haze of fatigue from grasping how much I still need to learn about bees, honey, people, Turkish, and life.
As I get up to buy a jar of honey and head back to Kars, Gokhan Bey offers to take my to see Ardahan’s hives. “You are my guest,” he says. These words spell danger. Danger of seeing corners of Anatolia that you never even imagined could exist, beautiful, remote, and almost impossible to return to. Danger of seeing Turkish hospitality, the kind that is boundless and humbling. And finally, danger of encountering the side of Turkey that is so easy to love: the people, the food, and the incredible natural environment. These are dangers for me, because when they happen, they make me feel like I can never leave, and that I am forever indebted to these people for keeping me so happy, so safe, and so alive. I take a deep breath, accept these dangers, and leave with Gokhan Bey to visit the bees.
“Thut,” “thut,” “thut,” “thut,” my white bee suit is covered in splotches of golden pulp – bee guts. My clothing has become a memorial of their martyrdom. I look at Mehmet Bey, he is unfazed but knows that we need to end our work here fast. We close the hives and leave the colonies to regroup. Mehmet Bey is a friend of Gokahn’s, and his hives are the first stop on our tour of Ardahan’s beehives.
Ardahan is the farthest corner of Turkey’s Northeast, nudged against Georgia and Armenia. It lies in a fertile moraine ringed by higher mountain ridges and Asiatic hilltops. Thin dirt roads loop around the edges of the moraine, and wind up the mountainsides to the yaylalar (the mountain meadow villages). We watch as families load their tractors, moving with the flower blossoms to greater heights. Gokhan explains that every 200 meters is a different honey season, and each season lasts about 15 days. Now that it is July and the low altitudes are drier, we continue higher and higher to get to the bees. From far away, the roads connecting the villages and their shiny mosque tops look like a strand of erratic pearls.
Across the meadows we hear the familiar noises of Halay – the dance and music customary of Turkish weddings. Whoever associated the birds and the bees with relationships must have visited Turkey’s Northeast in the summer time. The wedding sounds of celebration kundum drums, wavering tanburs, and honking echo throughout the villages and roads (this ritual has become rather familiar as it wakes me up daily in Kars). In between visits to bee boxes, we stop in at all of the weddings.
Our arrival is unexpected and unannounced, but everywhere people treat us as if they have been waiting for us for days, like when bees re-enter their hive with pollen. We come empty-handed, but our presence as “guests” is valued as a gift. We are escorted into the finest rooms in old wooden houses (such style homes are now a rarity). We sit on nomadic kilims and are fed the finest food. I am not exactly sure at what moment my quest for bees and honey became a sequel of the wedding crashers, but here we are, dancing and celebrating with the local Muhtar (village mayor).
Nothing about this surprises me. Somehow bees and weddings easily go hand in hand. Here in Ardahan, everything operates on a season. The bee season and the wedding season are short, full, and they involve everyone. As we finish eating our food, we get a call. A relative sees a swarm. We load into the car and zip across the meadows, the sounds of buzzing and weddings waver in and out of the windows – the Anadolu Doppler effect of summertime in the mountains.