Everyday my quest to learn about honey in Turkey brings me closer and closer to borderlands. More often than not, many of the beekeepers who are considering organic certification over the next year are within jumping distance of the Georgia and Armenia borders. Having visited over 60 beekeepers in this situation over the past week, here is a quick snapshot of a border-beeing.
As we watch life on the Georgian side from our mountainside perch, beekeepers discuss how “over there” they have better beekeeping techniques, a residual influence of the former Soviet Union. Since Russia had once invested a great deal into building beekeeping infrastructure, Georgia is a beekeeping leader from whom many Turkish beekeepers aspire to learn and visit.
Georgia, like few remaining parts of Turkey, also has completely pure strains of the Kafkas (Caucasian) bee.
Because of hundred’s of years of nomadic beekeeping, bees in Turkey have become hybridized and “mixed,” a residual influence of being a land bridge for humanity. Only in certain pockets of Turkey can you find truly indigenous species of the Kafkas bee. Hybridization is a natural biological process, thought to be positive in some respects because it builds immune systems. And in the case of Turkey, hybridized bees are a combination of a bee well-known for higher production (the lighter colored Italian honey-bee) with one known for durability and strength in cold weather (the dark and mighty Kafkas). However with the region’s infamously cold, wet, weather, these hybrids don’t stand a chance. For this reason, Turkey has designated several “no-fly zones” for hybrids, right along the borders of Georgia in Ardahan’s Posof, and Artvin’s Macahel.
These “no-fly zones” and the surrounding areas are protected by vast mountains and deep forests, so organizations such as TEMA’s Macahel can both preserve and rear pure strains of the Kafkas bees in order to ship and sell them across Turkey. TEMA – an organization that is dedicated to saving Turkey’s land from over development and soil erosion (a need utterly obvious as you drive towards Artvin and shutter at the dam construction projects) is also building sustainable livelihoods for the local community. One way that they do this is beekeeping and queen rearing.
Visiting their queen-rearing center in Posof, hundreds of hives and little queen boxes fan before us, nearly flowing off a cliff into a Georgian valley. Even as the rain and clouds drip down the mountainsides, the hearty bees fly on as if the weather is quite balmy. They are dark, sturdy, hovering machines.
In addition to finding pure strains of honeybees, the borderlands are pristine and relatively free from development. In particular, the Armenian border is mainly frequented by small mountain meadows full of empty houses and remembered legends. The local population looks at Armenia with many questions, particularly about beekeeping. Is it the same? How does their honey taste? Are the conditions and flowers comparable? Do they have pure strains of Kafkas bees? No one around here knows the answers. Songul, a local women beekeeper and resident of a small village outside of Arpacay points to the border, which nearly runs through her backyard, and explains to me “my bees know what its like, they can fly there.”
The local villages, as is prevalent throughout this area, have two names: one old and one new. The old names are Armenian, Azeri, Kurdish, Laz, Farsi, Turkish, Zaza or a scramble of a local dialect. The new names are generally Turkish. But even some of the new names tell of old stories. One in particular – Susgit/Susged – is the name of a border town where there was once great fighting and conflict. The name means be quiet and go.
Because many would rather look towards peace, where bees fly without borders, where the beekeepers share the secrets of the trade, where the region is celebrated for being the heartland of the Kafkas bee, and the world’s best honey, locals put their faith that the borders will soon be reopened and neighboring beekeepers will be united.