Mountain Bound: Starting a Honey Hunt in the South Caucasus

Kars is confused. Light rain and warm sun coax late flowers into bloom and beekeepers sigh in frustration. Imagine that you went to the beach for a week-long vacation, and it only rained. You saw the sun just once – in the rear-view mirror as you drove home. This, in short, describes the honey season. However, while the honey extractors spin dry, my story of honey hunting in the South Caucasus is already more than a full harvest, and it has only just begun.

The familiar reprise of beekeepers “It just didn’t happen this year,” is repeated by beekeepers in all of our interviews. The region was too hot, and dry. Then, it was too cold and rainy. But the perfect combination of warmth and rain never coincided. The flowers never reached their full bloom and the bees stayed close to home, waiting for the perfect conditions which never came.

Everyone looks a little perplexed, shaking their heads as they flip through frames, finding few with capped honey. The glittering open eyes of honey comb look like half completed art projects.

Now the region feels warm, a soft heated-wind rakes the dried wheat and barley into neat rows. But snow is near. Up in the mountains, a thick cloud like a heavy wall waits.

And we are heading there.

Our bags are packed and our travels are synchronized perfectly with the migrations of beekeepers. Just as the honey season reaches its close here in Kars, we are climbing over high mountain ranges and dropping down into dramatic micro-climates – returning back home with the bees who were set to roam the mountain tundras for the summer.

Put simply, our plan is two-fold:

We are uncovering the unique living histories of beekeeping and honey here in the South Caucasus.
We are mapping beekeeping journeys, connecting our sticky sweet tales with walking and traveling routes throughout the region.

There are two of us, me (Cat Jaffee, Buket, or Katreven Japarize) and Claire Bangser (or Benzeli). We have all of our supplies: computers, beekeeping and camping gear, mobile modems of various shapes and sizes, honey collecting jars, and an ample variety of cheeses – which are refreshed daily by shepherds and mountain villages.

We are here on a National Geographic Young Explorer’s grant, wanting to share with you a semi-forgotten world of beekeeping – that we are reminded of ever-so-often, when honey prices rise, when cries about disappearing bees hit the headlines, when beekeepers dressed like white grim reapers march through streets protesting pesticides. But as much as bees are a natural phenomenon bearing the apocalyptic omens of our future, pulling at our heart-strings, like stranded polar bears on floating icebergs, I can’t help but be drawn to the people who work and live beside them. Who are these keepers in the backlands, here at the heart of some of the world’s oldest honey (sorry Egypt, but the Caucasus clocks in honey discoveries at 5,500 years old)? And what can they teach us about life, humanity, history, and our future? Where does this regional culture around honey come from, and what can it tell us about local economies, social conditions, changing environments, and regional dynamics?

Formally for the next three months (and hopefully for much longer), we plan to share with you our stories and adventures from the field. Subscribe, stay tuned, and let the honey hunting begin!

Sky-Lines, By Claire Bangser

Sky-Lines, By Claire Bangser.

Spinning Sun and Rain - by Cat Jaffee

Spinning Sun and Rain – by Cat Jaffee.

My Bag - by Claire Bangser

My Bag – by Claire Bangser, Cat Jaffee and all of the content’s of her bag.

Boxed-in Pinarli - by Claire Bangser

Boxed-in Pinarli – by Claire Bangser. A Pinarli beekeeper stands among his bees in the rain.

The Craft of Honey - by Cat Jaffee

The Craft of Honey, by Cat Jaffee – Though in Kars honey drips from frames, the season feels incomplete.

Waiting Bees - by Cat Jaffee

Waiting Bees, by Cat Jaffee – Poised at the entrance of a traditional hive, two bees discuss.

Confused Kars, by Cat Jaffee

Confused Kars, by Cat Jaffee – Kars’ weather perplexes some beekeepers, even those who have kept bees on the mountain plateaus their entire lives.

Into the Mountains - by Cat Jaffee

Into the Mountains – by Cat Jaffee, Coming over the ridge from the Kars plateaus into the Savsat Mountains.

About Cat

Catherine de Medici Jaffee is a National Geographic Young Explorer, a Fulbright Scholar, a Luce Fellow, the Founder of Balyolu: the Honey Road, and a lunatic about honey culture in the Caucasus. Raised on a farm in the Colorado Rockies, Cat grew up loving animals, dirt, and altitude. Her dedication and passion for animals, agriculture, and women leaders has launched her across the world as a Luce and Fulbright scholar: to raise Aigamo ducks in Japan, to research yak trade caravans in Sikkim, and to study rural women’s migration in Turkey. In particular, Turkey - with its fish hung like laundry from windows, its 9,000 species of flowers, and its delicious honey - continues to lure Cat back to its borders. Cat’s love for Turkey, the mountains, agriculture, and women’s leadership blend together sweetly in her new venture Balyolu and her blog Inspired Beeing. You can most frequently find her jumping on a mountain, running from angry bees, cooking in villages, hitching on dirt roads, or joking with Turkcell about her internet woes. Cat is joined by her partner in crime Claire Bangser, artist, photographer, writer, and globe wanderer who believes in creative storytelling as a way to powerfully connect people across mental and physical borders. From working with small-scale women farmers in Mali, to documenting peoples' lives along a 2,000 mile bike tour in the US, she finds that every person (and bee) has an important story to tell and much wisdom to share (speaking of Wisdom, Claire just published her first book, Ride Somewhere Far. Check it out on our Link Roll). These days, you're most likely to find Claire upside down, yodeling from a mountaintop, making tragic mistakes in Turkish, or eating meat for Cat.

Posted on August 29, 2012, in Culture, Environment, Food, History, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. May the stars guide you, and all your experience keep you safe!

  2. Good luck girls! Looking forward to hearing of your adventures with the bees…and beekeepers

  3. charltonestatetrust

    Fantastic photography!

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