After shivering wet and cold in my bed, I embrace daylight and stumble into Hasan’s kitchen. Men rapidly discuss local politics. I plunk my camera on the table, turn off my ears, and indulge in dripping cheesy corn-flour fondue, homemade yogurt, eggs, and tomatoes. Then I hear a word, “çerçeve”… “frame. I turn on my ears at the sound of a magic honey cue word.
However instead of frames of honey or wax, they are describing a whole other kind of frame… photos. The men at the table are professional photographers who are visiting the Macahel to document its one-of-a-kind ecology. They’ve been eyeing my amateur Nikon D80, and without needing much introduction they invite me to adventure with them into the forests and cliffs of the Macahel. Here, “forests” equals “bees.” I’m in. We load into their truck and traverse the mountainsides, capturing quick glimpses of karakovan as we pass the dense walls of trees, some of which are at the ripe young age of 600-years-old.
As the cow trails become too narrow and dense with vegetation, we park our car and begin hiking towards a local village and waterfall. Along the way, we see subtle signs of honey everywhere, from traces of beekeepers ducking into the forest with a light trail of smoke wavering behind them, to rectangular boxes and coils of rope propped against a tree. The looming shadows of karakovan hives, like circular eyes, watches us as we walk below their branch platforms.
I feel at once the two conflicted feelings of being an utterly foreign non-green, noisy graceless human, and one of million strings in a web of life as a breathing, feeling, inspired being. I look to the nature photographers, who have built a career around capturing this emotion and putting it into art. How do you reconcile this convergence of something so untouched by humans, and at the same time, so linked to our very cores? I think about the business I want to start, and how I want to harness this emotion of both preserving nature and being a part of it. Honey, like photography, is a great vehicle.
If the photographers are pondering these same ideas, I can’t tell. They slink in their camouflage vests along the ground to catch shots of dewdrops hanging from branches and butterflies trembling on leaves. Villagers living on the sides of the path balance high in tree branches, picking fruit or nuts. They throw us pears as we pass, and invite us into their homes.
Each of them is a beekeeper. Most of the inhabitants of the Macahel keep bees on a small scale, providing enough honey for their families and friends. However one beekeeper we meet, Suleyman, is an independent producer that appeals to the summer travelers who journey this road to visit a local waterfall.
Suleyman Bey has been keeping bees for 13 years and has 120 hives, including several beautifully full karakovans. His honey is a combination of hazelnut, chestnut, and acacia tree blossoms and a number of flowers from his garden. He sells his honey for 50-70 tl a kilo, and welcomes visitors into his traditionally decorated home to tell stories about each jar of honey. If you didn’t come here yourself, the blank honey jars would not reveal a thing about their dark crimson gooey contents.
Honey from the Macahel can fetch high prices in Istanbul, around 250-300 TL a pop. Because of the volatile weather patterns of the Macahel, the low productivity of Kafkas bees (and their smaller growth/swarming patterns compared to other bee species), its difficult for producers to make a large quantity of high quality honey. In many cases, the karakovan hives yield only five kilos of honey a year, which is markedly low. For this reason, good quality honey from this region is relatively rare, expensive, and hard to find. Lucky for Suleyman Bey, he has strategically positioned himself close to a highly traveled hiking route, so he has a steady flow of about 10 customers per day during the three month of summer. He has also managed to create a steady supply chain by using both karakovan and traditional hives. We travelers are happy to learn firsthand about his honey and pay the reduced non-Istanbul price. And based on his location, Suleyman taps into a niche market of buyers who are interested as much in his honey as the experience of finding him.
Talking of photo frames and honey frames, we visit local mosques, traditional homes, and dine on incredible Georgian food. Back at the dinner table, we pass around jars of Suleyman’s honey from different seasons, comparing colors, textures, and densities. Here we savor firsthand that a honey taste comes as much from the quality of its contents as it does from the story of how we found it.