Crashing Weddings and Beehives in Turkey’s Wild Northeastern Mountains


“Don’t Look!” …and in their quest to protect the dignity of their queen, the bees came for my camera.

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.

Agabey, stockfull of Ardahan beekeeping knowledge, stands with his honey.

*****

“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.

Pinky’s in full swing, we dance Halay.
We are escorted to the bride, who sits a top a flurry of white ruffles.
A traditional Turkish hive type, Karakovan hives are made from hollowed trees with the comb naturally formed by the bees.
The inside of a large karakovan hive with the comb supported by branches.
Flowers in full bloom in the alpine Cildir lake – 3rd largest lake in Turkey.
Border valleys wind between Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. On the cliffside sits Seytan Castle.
My hosts take the scenic root to deliver me back to Kars. We eat fish at sunset by Cildir lake. The danger is clear: I will forever be a captive of Anatolia’s charm.
These local flowers are old remedies for Varroa mites, points out Gokhan Bey.
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Posted on July 4, 2011, in Food, Hospitality, Inspired!, The Bal and the Bees, Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 98 Comments.

  1. Wow, great photos. That first one is insane!

    • No kidding! There were bees crawling all over my camera, and hands, and clothes. Until that point I had never really worn much gear around the bees out here, I didn’t think I had to! Good thing I changed my mind…in the future I am painting my camera with flowers.

  2. This is amazing – great post!

  3. What a great story. I just returned from two weeks in Cappadocia, and it was much like what you described: a series of small towns, awkward first encounters leading to boundless hospitality, and a landscape that makes you never want to leave. We were on a quest for Byzantine paintings instead of honey, but we managed to crash a few weddings, too! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for sharing – beautiful photos. Here’s to adventuring:) Congrats on being FP!

  5. An incredible story, beautifully told. I must admit bees creep me out … and that I’ve NEVER been stung before (well, that I know of…) — so I probably have a somewhat irrational fear going on!

    Thanks so much for sharing this — I’m so glad you were Freshly Pressed, because it gave me the opportunity to confront my fears. Note to self: Don’t bring camera on next bee encounter…
    ;)

    • I know what you are saying about bees being scary… they have been hyped-up to be rather frightening, and in some cases, especially if you have an allergy, the fear is very real! If I were you, I would actually go try to get stung (bring an epi-pen) and see if you have an allergy. It is actually a good thing to learn, just in case. And surprisingly, if you don’t have an allergic reaction, the sting can feel kind of good at first. Some people even swear by “sting-therapy.”

      You can bring a camera, just be careful about sticking it too close to the hive ;)! Good luck confronting your fears, let me know how it goes!

  6. Thanks for sharing,just to go to a bee keeping course in Arusha Tanzania. Saw your blog and it is the first i was reading. Well done and i keep looking out for the next story;)

    • Oh! Please tell me how your course goes! I would love to even feature a guest post from you about your experience if you are interested!

  7. Thanks for sharing, great photos and valuable experiences you had.

  8. Wow..that is one ruffly wedding dress that bride is wearing.

    I like all of your photos, but the ones that you took of the valleys are my favourite! There’s something just so beautiful about a natural landscape like that.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! :)

    • Hi Christy, I know what you mean. It is the landscape that first enchanted me three years ago, and when there was down time in my desk cubical in DC it was all I could think about. I am happy to be back. Thank you writing!

  9. Wow, great story. And beautiful pictures. Thanks so much for sharing!

  10. That’s just amazing. And those natural hives! And the scenery! And the wedding dress!!!!!!

    • Actually now that you mention it, I think the wedding dress and the hives sort of resemble each other! Thanks for visiting :).

  11. I enjoyed reading your story! Thanks for sharing :)

  12. This is an incredible story. The photos are spectacular and the bees are wonderful. Our bees have all died mysteriously here in central USA. They claim it is from a virus. I doubt that is the truth.

    • Are you a beekeeper? I am going to post soon an article profiling a beekeeper in US who is taking on the EPA to ban a series of deadly pesticides that many of us believe to be one of the main causes for big disappearances in the US. Check back in soon to learn more. Thanks for your post and your kind words!

  13. Thank you for this nice post and cheers from -another region of- Turkey!

  14. Facinating, and exotic in cultural details, i spent a year in Romania and my heart is there still. Congats and thank you for opening up a view to the inside of rural Turkish life!

  15. Fantastic article! Very informative and your word pictures sprung to life the adventures you have experienced. Thanks for your insights.

  16. Such striking scenery and not at all what I imagined Turkey to look like! What an interesting project you are doing… really enjoye dreading your post!

  17. Great pictures and wonderful story…congrats on being Freshly Stung..oops I mean Freshly Pressed.

    Have a Great Day.

    Mr Bricks

  18. Orange Juice Crackers

    Thrilling to read!

  19. childofmodernjubilee

    Such beautiful writing! So easy and lush! My favorites are your parallels between the way bees and humans react to something foreign. Also, your phrase “My clothing has become a memorial of their martyrdom” is so clever. You’ve described this place in terms so mysterious and haunting — I’m inspired!

    And now I’m done gushing.

  20. I like how you described the encounter with the old man and his shop as something “dangerous.” I think that this description rings true for a lot of people when excellent things happen in their life. Danger is like a caution due to too much excitement. I also really enjoy the photos. They make this post spectacular.

    • Thank you for your note Melody. You are right. What is interesting about the danger aspect here too is that most people classify this part of Turkey as being “dangerous.” I wanted to flip that stereotype on its head, that danger for a lone woman traveling is not just everything that could possibly be bad, but in some cases, experiences that are nothing but extraordinary. Thanks again for visiting!

  21. I loved my short time in Turkey, and this really, really makes me want to go back. What a beautiful place, lovely people, and your interest in bees is interesting to follow.

  22. Inspiring story and great photos ! Thanks a lot for sharing.

  23. Wow. Bees are so amazing, and based on this post, it sounds like Turkey is, too. What an adventure!

  24. Wow!!! Your photos are AMAZING! I have always wanted to go to Turkey. Thank you for sharing.

  25. Remarkable photos – I’ve always wanted to keep bees and had no idea people were doing it in Turkey. Thanks for extending my knowledge. The country looks quite beautiful.

  26. Amazing photos—what a journey!

  27. You inspire me! I love what you are doing and I’m so happy for you!

  28. Great Post and beautiful images. Thanks for sharing.

  29. Beautiful pictures! i freakin’ love them, thanks for sharing.You have been a great inspiration to me..

  30. Great pictures!! It is really beautiful! Thanks for sharing!!

  31. tourism Guide

    Good post. Pretty informative. Thank you for sharing.

    http://spirittourism.com

  32. Hello!

    I love your blog! I’m originally from Turkey and was living in Istanbul until about 7 months ago when I quit my job and came to Sydney! Boy do I miss honey and Kaymak (buttermilk, complements honey perfectly) spread on some warm from the oven Turkish bread. I hope you keep enjoying your travels and get to sample honey from the Black Sea too. Crazy Honey (Deli Bal) is rumoured to be natural viagra but many have eneded in the hospital for consuming large quantities, as it is poisonous. Keep up the good work. Turkey is such a vast country and the real heart of it is in the country and villages (true for all countries!)

    • Hahaha! Funny that you mention Deli bal… that is my next post! How is the honey in Australia!? Are you making it out to rural Australia at all? The WA is awesome :). Stay in touch!

  33. What a great experience for you to be there.

    I watched a Turkish movie about a bee-keeper & his family recently (no, not a doco). It was absolutely beautiful and very moving! I am looking forward to going over in the next two years and will now plan to visit that region. Thank you Cat for the inspiration

  34. love honey, and these pics you have taken are fantastic!

  35. wow, some really beautiful pictures! Looks like quite an adventure!

  36. Great post. Also i’m from Turkey / Ardahan :)

    • Ardahan’li misin? Ciddi misin? Memleketin bayagi sevdim. Blogumu gezdigin icin tesekkur ederim.

      • Evet Ardahan’lıyım :) Ardahan/ Çıldır
        Blogun çok güzel. Çıldır gölünü görmüşsündür :)

  37. I’m so glad you were Freshly Pressed, because it gave me the opportunity to confront my fears. Note to self: Don’t bring camera on next bee encounter…

    • Haha, I think bees are most bothered when the camera is right in their hive, the noise and the color is a bit intrusive. Black is a generally a no no. And they can smell fear (that kid from Jerry McGuire was right!) so just stay calm, smile, and you should have no problem. Good luck!

  38. What a delightful post: striking pictures, amazing adventures, and so heartfelt – and very deserving of being Freshly Pressed. Thank you for taking all of us along with you on your trek :) MJ

  39. It’s really amazing, I really like the photo you shared, I really like your story and photos so much. Thanks for sharing.

  40. This is a fantastic capture piece of Turkey. I have never been Turkey, always wanted to go, this article makes me even more envious of visiting the country.

  41. Nice blog and congrats on freshly pressed listed i loved this post

  42. Loved it!

    Both the story and the way you’ve written it.

    Wish you many more of these wonderful experiences. :^)

  43. pallasartemis

    Enjoyed your article and the photos :)
    Çok teşekkürler!

  44. good post keep posting frnd thanks 4 sharing

  45. sure great post this must be said. great photography ! Had no clue about Anatol highland thanks for the insight – yes Çok teşekkür ederim !

  46. I enjoyed reading this post… Great report.

  47. Fantastic post and great pics too! WOW!
    We hope to start bee-keeping next year when we arrive in Canada to live. I shall watch your posts with interest.
    Thankyou ;-)

  48. Excellent post thanks for sharing

  49. Thanks to Freshly Pressed I’ve discovered your amazing adventure. I started keeping bees in March of this year – in Texas.. I have 6 hives and am totally fascinated by my bees. I name all of my queens. Your article makes me want to venture away and do what you are doing – but who would keep my bees at home? I’ll enjoy bees of the world through you – thank you for the opportunity. I actually am very jealous – but happy that you can do what you’ve chosen! I can just imagine what the honey tastes like coming from all the different parts of our vast world – yet it’s so small. I’d never considered people in Turkey keeping bees…ahhhh sweet dreams.

  50. One more thing…if you visit my blog, look under the “Bees and Honey” page for some photos of my girls and my adventures thus far. I’ve actually been on swarm captures, hive removals and harvested my first batch of honey! Maybe your friends in Turkey would enjoy seeing bee keeping in Texas!

    • Thank you for your wonderful comments, and your blog looks great! I admit, it is difficult to be on the move. There is this nudging feeling all the time of wanting to set-up my own hives. At the same time its been a great education just learning from other beekeepers and seeing how everyone does it differently. I am also very driven by this idea to set up a social venture…that is the ultimate goal.

      I know eventually I won’t be able to resist watching my own hives through the seasons and will have to stay in one place. In the meantime I will follow your blog and live vicariously through your experience with your hives. Thank you for visiting!

  51. You find fantastic things through ‘freshly pressed’. :) Great story and pics, have wanted to do something similar here in Slovenia. Yes, there’s terrific honey here, too.

    • SEND ME A PHOTO! I would love to see what kind of hives people use in Slovenia…send to inspiredbeeing (at) gmail.com and I will post it to my blog. Thanks for visiting!

  52. This is wonderful – great post!

  53. Wow what amazing pictures and amazing differences in culture!

  54. What an awesome adventure! Love the narrative and the photos to match it! Great photos! I especially love the one of the man in the shop. You seem to really be talented at this stuff, and have really inspired me… I need to get my hands on a decent camera first then I can really spiff up my blogging :]. I saw this documentary called Discover the Gift and it has allowed me to recognize all of the great things around me… From people, their love, and gifts to the positive aspects of seemingly purely negative events that do indeed have a positive aspect, you just have to look for it… Ever heard of it? I really recommend it. Congrats on being FP and thanks for sharing! http://on.fb.me/kVoAQo

  55. Thought I would comment and say neat theme, did you design it for yourself? Really looks really good!

  56. It’s the perfect place for beekeeping. Far from harmful things. And a unique hive for bees.

  57. I have valued your post. Thank you for all of the help. I ‘m preparing my wedding and getting to know exactly how many tasks are required in order to help make it perfect. Please let me know if you may have any kind of tips on ways to make it easier. Thank you!

  58. Have you ever thought about adding a little bit more than just your articles?
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    this site could undeniably be one of the greatest in its field.
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  59. It’s hard to find experienced people on this topic,
    however, you sound like you know what you’re talking about!

    Thanks

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  1. Pingback: Sidebar: Bees | The Chapel

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