Sometimes Learning Really Stings: Lessons of Honey and Development

We were able to move a swarm of new bees into the new hives, but we did not open any of the others.

Today I made a mistake. It was the kind that results in puffy eyes, howling, deep stings, and lies. Now a good six miles walk away from the mistake, I am tempted to keep it to myself, to tuck it away, even to use it as an excuse to give up. But then it would really be a mistake. Instead, I am posting it on the blog and turning it into a lesson, because at the end of the day, inspiration and success isn’t always coated with sugar. In fact, like good honey, we benefit the most from our experiences when they are served without any added sweeteners.

So here is my painful story, sugar-free.

My mistake began in July. I had been visiting a family and their village for quite some time, particularly because of my friend Maya (I have refrained from using her real name). Maya is sweet and smart and caring, and I call her parents “anne” and “baba,” because they are my home away from home. In July, Maya’s bees began swarming, and each of her hives multiplied. But she had nowhere to put the new swarms. So she borrowed dirty, infected bee boxes from a neighbor for her growing bee colonies. Maya’s dream is to keep organic bees, and because these boxes are old and painted, they nullify her potential organic status. I saw this, and told Maya that her and her family needed to buy new organic hives. It sounds easy enough. But new hives are expensive, costing 100 tl a pop. By August, Maya would need four new hives.

One day in July, Maya asked me, “can you help me get new hives?”

I paused. The program I am here to launch, Balyolu, has one main purpose – to help establish women rural leaders. And here Maya had a problem, in order to keep her bees organic, she needed to buy new hives…but with what funds? Other than the needless costs of her father smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, every cent goes towards keeping the family alive. There isn’t really much to spare to buy one of the family’s seven children a new set of four 400 tl hives.

“I’ll help you get a new hive Maya,” I promised. I told Maya that if she gave me two kilos of her first harvest of honey, I will help her sell them for a good price (50 tl each) and we will use that money to buy a new hive. Generally speaking, new beekeepers don’t harvest from their first year of keeping bees. I know this, and Maya knows this, but she explained that she could take one kilo of honey from each of her hives, and it would not be a problem.

Come August, I geared up to bring Maya her new organic hive, bought with her first two jars of honey. When I arrived, Maya was excited for her new hive and showed me her four jars of honey, and two frames full of honey with wax. However something didn’t feel right. I could distinctly tell that the honey wasn’t from her hives, the color, the size of the frames, and the packaging. I had a feeling Maya had lied to me, because she couldn’t tell me that “No” her hives weren’t yet ready to produce any honey. I realized this, and I thought, its ok. But I wasn’t happy that Maya was lying to me. She knows and believes in Balyolu, particularly the part about creating a mark that is reputable, transparent, trustworthy, and very honest in representing the quality, contents, and makers behind each jar of honey. I can’t have anyone participating in the program that would lie about their honey. So I asked Maya if we could open her hives, something that we do every time I visit.

“Sure,” she said, “but first braid my hair.”

Ok, so I braided Maya’s hair. Then I asked if we could see her hives, but she instead insisted that we dry the sheep wool. Ok I nodded, and we went to dry sheep wool. Then Maya took me to the fields to rake hay, and then to the oven to make bread, and then to the yard to sew the comforters. I could tell that she was avoiding visiting the bees, and that she didn’t want me to see the hives. Finally, I grabbed our bee suites, and I said, “common Maya, lets just open one, we will be quick, and we won’t even remove a frame.”

“Ok” she replied, “just go sit with my mom for one minute while I change into pants.”

Everything after this happened so fast, it’s hard to say what was real. I watched Maya leave to go outdoors, and her mother, sister, and her nieces pulled my hands, put me on the couch, took my camera, and began taking posed photos of us sitting together. It seemed strange. Why did they want to suddenly take photos? And why did Maya go outside to change her pants? The next thing I saw horrified me.

Maya came screaming into the living room, her eyes, and nose, and ears crawling with stinging, buzzing bees. Bees were stuck in the beautiful braids I made in her hair. Bees were angrily pinching her neck as she swung her arms around her body. Her eyes began to shrink between rapidly swelling welts that crisscrossed her face. And the little girls in the room began to scream and cry and run. I jumped on the wailing Maya and begin plucking the bees from her face and her hair. Maya’s mother left the room to fetch a wet towel, and Maya’s sister ushered the little girls from the house.

I cannot be sure, but I am almost certain that Maya had stuck her face in a hive.

Once we got all of the bees from the room, and everyone recovered from the shock, Maya told us that while she was outside, a cow tried to knock over the hives. Maya ran after the cow and the bees, and the bees which were attacking the cow, began to attack Maya. I didn’t see it happen, so I cannot say if this is what truly took place. But I know that for five hours, Maya avoided opening the hives without telling me why, and when we had run out of things to do, instead of explaining to me that the honey is from her neighbors’, Maya arranged for her family to distract me while she stuck her face in her hives.

When I imagined starting my program, and possibilities of terrible things that could happen, this kind of horrifying event did not cross my mind. With Maya’s beautiful face completely swollen in terrifying welts, her eyes small slits, her nose a white strangled bulge, I watched her shudder as a fly buzzed near her face. Seeing that reaction was the worst of all. I took a deep breath, and covered my eyes with my hands. A young woman beekeeper with so much potential would rather stick her face in her hives, than explain that she is trying to sell honey that is not her own. And somehow, me, plus a number of other factors, put her in this situation.

I concluded the best thing for me to do was leave. So after insisting that I have too much work to do, and kissing the family goodbye, I started my six-mile walk back to Kars, dissecting my mistake piece by piece. What is the purpose of mistakes if we cannot admit them, learn from them, and share our lessons for the benefit of others. I am ashamed of what happened, ashamed beyond belief. But if this story can keep any person in the future from allowing someone they love to put their own face in their own hives, then my shame is inconsequential.

Here is a summary of my lessons from this mistake:

  1. Maya was initially given four hives without much guidance on how to expand and scale her business in the long-term. A beekeeping course is a great idea. But to work with these women beyond teaching them a hobby, into actually helping them start ventures, and becoming experienced professionals, a program needs to span years, and include a financing system that allows women to scale their work and materials without it being “charity.”
  2. I asked something of Maya that put her in an uncomfortable situation, where she felt that she had to lie, rather than disappoint me. In any work that we do, with our colleagues, our family, or our friends we should set people up for success. There are a thousand and one creative ways that I could have worked with Maya to raise money to buy her new hives. My focus was on honey, because that is what we do, but deep down I had a feeling that she wouldn’t be fully ready yet to sell honey, and rather than listening to her insistence, I should have listened to my instincts.
  3. In the village, nothing is more powerful than our word. My promise to help Maya with her hives, her promise to give me two jars of honey. Never make a promise that you cannot keep or put someone in a situation where they must break their own.
  4. Maya’s bees are a cheaper mix of kafkas and Italian honey bees. In the future, my program will only work with pure kafkas bees, so even if a woman sticks her head in her hives, she won’t get stung.

The scale, credibility, and longevity of the program that I imagine to do this work right and to do it well will require dedicated staff, funds, and commitment. I have never been more certain of that than at this very moment. I came to Kars to do a preliminary research for my program, to meet and learn about the culture, the people, the honey, the bees, the villages, the families, the flowers, the problems, the conflicts, the weather, the seasons, the costs, the risks, the challenges, the successes, the other non-profits, government officials, and businesses that are all important factors in this kind of work. I have learned a great deal from my preliminary survey, and I know that with the right support, a venture of this kind would be extraordinary. And part of what will ensure the future success of any program of this kind, is that every single mistake or lesson is remembered, learned from, and hopefully never repeated.

The new hive will help keep Maya as an organic beekeeper. The face full of stings won't.

Hard Lessons are like Good Honey - Always Seker-siz, ie. Sugar Free.

Posted on August 28, 2011, in Culture, Hospitality, Women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Very interesting. It took alot of courage to stick her face into the hive! Is it possible that her story was true about the cows – are cows close to hives? Lying is something I cannot personally tollerate! Sad story – one in which the true story may never be known but interesting and a lesson for sure!

    • I keep replaying it over and over in my head to figure this out too. It just seemed so strange. But also the timing of the events were so odd. Like before she went outside, she pulled her mom to the side and said something so I could not hear, then the photos started, then the screaming… I have to think that she didn’t mean it to be as bad as it was, or that she had something else in mind. I have been analyzing these events over and over to figure it out. I think this is proof, our food is not just food, but so much more complicated. Its culture, respect, integrity, history, politics, community, language, science…We will never fully know, but I have been calling the family every day to check in on them, and they seem fine, and fortunately Maya’s face is coming back to normal.

  2. Thanks for being so honest about your feelings and the events that occurred. There are always hurdles in life, it’s what you do with them that says a lot about your character. Keep doing what you are doing- I enjoy reading every post and hope one day to buy some of that honey!

  3. Wonderful post, Cat. What was most inspiring was your ability to turn a mistake into a valuable lesson. Keep up the amazing work you are doing.

  4. Çok geçmiş olsun. It is clear that everyone involved can learn something from this. You have made it possible for all of us to proceed with a greater level of awareness. Your work is powerful on so many levels!

  5. That was sad and inspiring. Maya must have felt a lot of shame to follow through with that action. You are right, our food is much more complicated. All ‘mistakes’ are feedback and Cat, you have found so much in that event.

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