Vzzzz. The noise passed beneath my sleeve, crawling deeper and deeper into my shirt. Vzzz. Oh no, I thought to myself. Oh. No. My jaw dropped as my face transformed silently into an expression of horror. There it was, a buzzing inside of my bra. I didn’t fear bee stings – even in places where a bee should never access. No, what I actually feared that very moment was the audience watching my every move: the mayor of Cildir, the first place honey winner of Ardahan, and my friend visiting from out of town; three men in a properly conservative corner of Ardahan. Yep. There was no way I could gracefully deal with this situation.
I turned my back, looked to the sky, took several calm breaths, and proceeded to fish the bee out of my bra.
“Are you OK Buket hanim?” the mayor asked me politely, not sure if he should help or look away. “Oh yea, everything is fine” I replied in high-pitched Turkish.
In spite of these dire circumstances, we couldn’t have been in a prettier location. On the valley crest next to Cildir lake, the green folds of Ardahan rippled before us into cascading cliff sides. As if floating above the valley itself, bee boxes hovered over small rocky outcrops, placed there to catch swarms of wandering bees before they dropped off the valley’s edge.
In between sips of the pure Ardahan air, I teased the bee out of my shirt. It wiggled miserably, unhappy to die. Even at my relief of removing the bee, the bee had been crushed, and I was sorry to see it suffer.
I turned around as if nothing happened. “Good to go! Lets continue the tour.” I smiled at my hosts. My friend, “Davut” and I were hitchhiking around Cildir, aiming to walk or ride to some of its famous and even “out of bounds” fortresses. Along the way, we bumped into the mayor and Ardahan’s most famous beekeeper Henis Ballikkaya.
Davut had been traveling across Europe and Turkey for several months, following InspiredBeeing during his journeys. By the time he arrived in Kars, he was ready for honey. And lucky for us, our trip to Cildir would expose us to some of the best that the Northeast had to offer.
We were invited into Henis Bay’s home and escorted by the mayor to sample a gold wild rose honey mixed with some of the cappings (my favorite!) and a smoother thicker warm thyme honey. We asked Henis Bay a thousand questions about his bees, his practice, and local beekeeping traditions. Of our conversation, the response that stunned me the most was that in a season where every beekeeper was complaining of the lowest honey numbers in years, Henis Bey boasted that his bees produced over 40 kilos of honey per hive. Without sugar, or medication, this seemed near impossible.
But then again, when you see where these bees live, it is no wonder they are so productive. Bees are funny in that the more profoundly beautiful the landscape, the more powerfully they work. And Ardahan in all of its beauty is one of Turkey’s premiere honey regions. It boasts the second largest lake in Turkey, some of the highest yayla’s, and it is one of two regions with remaining populations of “pure” kafkas bees.
As the sun began to set, Davut and I waved goodbye to our hosts and began navigating old cow paths through local villages to visit Seytan Kale (Satan’s Castle). Unfortunately, there is not a great deal of historical information about Satan’s Castle. Fortunately, this means our imaginations could run wild. With the sun setting, we crawled over every corner of the castle, hypothesizing, philosophizing, and ruminating about life in a fortress suspended on a cliff.
The long autumn sun took hours to set, giving us enough time to navigate the cow paths back to town where we met Ugur of Cildir.
Meeting Ugur was like discovering a long lost brother. He’s 25, he loves photography, he goes on long solo hikes through the Georgian valleys, he camps on islands on the lakes, he bikes through the local villages. He loves birds, his mother, and new people. He wants to learn foreign languages, travel, and use his economics degree to change the world for the better.
Ugur took Davut and I on his night runs to the villages to drop off fuel, he took us to his family store, and he showed us the beautiful hidden corners of Aktas lake, Kurt Kalesi (wolf castle), and nearby villages that are threatened by impending dam projects.
He also introduced us to his mother, one of the most legendary beekeepers in Cildir. Ugur’s mother has been keeping bees for most of her life, teaching herself everything she knows. She has all of her own gear, including a spinner, and a wonderful collection of bee boxes. It is no wonder that Ugur is one of the most unique people I have met in Northeastern Turkey, his mother is a strong, independent, and loving bee woman. Not to mention, she gave Davut and I one of the best tasting honeycombs of our lives.
As Davut and I left Cildir to return to Kars, I thought of the grace it takes to be a woman beekeeper in Turkey, whether it’s a bee in your bra, or teaching yourself everything from square one. I thought of the guts it takes to be a dreamer, how Ugur balances a love for his home with his aspirations to see the world. And I thought about how both bees and humans had built a life on the edges of Cildir’s cliffs, suspended in beauty and time.